We seem to say this every six months or so, but what a year for books. The second half of 2019 brings new novels from Colson Whitehead, Ben Lerner, Jacqueline Woodson, and Margaret Atwood. It brings hotly anticipated first novels by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Wayne Koestenbaum. It brings Zadie Smith’s very first short story collection. Riveting memoirs. Coming-of-age stories. With more than 100 titles, you’re going to have your hands full this fall. As always, please let us know what we missed in the comments, and look for additional titles in our monthly previews.
Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then sign up to be a member today. And, get the best of The Millions delivered to your inbox every week. Sign up for our free newsletter.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead: Fresh off a Pulitzer for The Underground Railroad, Whitehead returns to the subject of America’s racist history with this tale of a college-bound black man who runs afoul of the law in Jim Crow Florida and ends up in the hellish Nickel Academy, where boys are beaten and sexually abused by the staff. In an early review, Publishers Weekly calls The Nickel Boys “a stunning novel of impeccable language and startling insight.” (Michael)
The Need by Helen Phillips: This book had me at “existential thriller about motherhood” but when I found out that the mother in the book is also a paleobotanist, I pre-ordered, because I’ve spent a lot of time in the American Museum of Natural History staring at plant fossils. In case you need more convincing, it has garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, is on multiple summer reading lists, and is from the author of The Beautiful Bureaucrat and Some Possible Solutions. Also, the cover is gorgeous. (Hannah)
A Prayer for Travelers by Ruchika Tomar: In this modern-day Western, Tomar tells the story of a young woman’s search for her missing friend in the harsh desert landscape along the California-Nevada border. A gritty portrait of small-town life and the violence that plagues it, the novel formally experiments with time and narration. Publishers Weekly praises Tomar for “employing authorial sleight-of-hand…intentionally scrambl[ing] the chronology of the chapters, the better to immerse the reader in the disorder and dysfunction that shape her characters’ lives.” (Matt)
Speaking of Summer by Kalisha Buckhanon: Buckhanon’s latest novel, her fourth, takes the reader on a quest to find out why a woman in Harlem disappeared after walking to the roof of her brownstone one day. The missing woman’s sister, Autumn, sets out to solve the case, after learning the police aren’t likely to provide her with answers. Autumn’s life unravels as her grief becomes overwhelming, and she grows steadily more fixated on the plight of missing women. (Thom)
The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks: In what Kirkus describes as “finely written and deeply empathetic, a powerful portrait of artistic commitment and emotional frustration,” Horrocks tells the story of Erik Satie and his siblings, Conrad and Louise. Set in La Belle Époque Paris, The Vexations is a finally wrought, sensitive novel about family and genius, and the toll that genius exacts on family in pursuit of great art. (Adam P.)
The Book of X by Sarah Rose Etter: Etter’s first novel, The Book of X, is a “natural extension” of her wild and raucous collection of stories, Tongue Party, which Deb Olin Unferth selected as winner of (the now defunct) Caketrain’s chapbook competition. Told in fragments, The Book of X alternates between the story of the alienated and disfigured Cassie, born with her stomach twisted in the shape of a knot, and her fantasies of an alternate life for herself. Scott McClanahan calls The Book of X “our new Revelation,” while Blake Butler compares Etter’s voice to Angela Carter’s, declaring, “there’s a new boss in the Meat Quarry.” (Anne)
Very Nice by Marcy Dermansky: Emma Straub says Dermanky’s fourth novel is, “her best yet.” If you’ve read Bad Marie and The Red Car, you know the bar is high and that no writer balances on the sharp edge between comedy and tragedy quite like Dermansky. Very Nice weaves several stories together, a wealthy divorcée in Connecticut, her college-age daughter, a famous American novelist, and a poodle, to ask a timely question—how much bad behavior from a bad man can we take? Maria Semple says it best, “so sexy and reads so smooth.” (Claire)
Circus: Or, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes by Wayne Koestenbaum
Poet, literary critic, and all-around cultural polymath Koestenbaum returns with this post-modern, Nabokovian take on creativity, sexuality, classical music, and the circus in his first novel. Drawing on his interests in camp, Queer theory, and the symphony hall, which he’s explored in critical works like The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire and The Anatomy of Harpo Marx, Koestenbaum gives us the evocatively named Theo Mangrove, a polyamorous pianist who fantasizes that the Italian circus performer Moira Orfei will accompany him on his comeback concert in a medieval, walled French city. Koestenbaum’s hallucinatory lyricism lends itself to declaration like “After an intense orgasm we produce voice from our head rather than our chest;” an aphorism every-bit worthy of poet John Shade in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. (Ed)
They Could Have Named Her Anything by Stephanie Jimenez: Fulbright scholar Jimenez returns to her native New York in her first novel They Could Have Called Her Anything. A subway ride from Queens to the Upper East Side will see you take the F train while switching to the 6 or the Q, for an investment of about 45 minutes, but the actual distance between Maria Anis Rosario and her privileged friend Rocky’s life couldn’t be further apart. Jimenez’ debut explores the unexpected friendship between these girls at the elite private school both attend, a world where even though “certain girls at Bell Seminary were intimidated” by Maria, a connection would be made between her and Rocky across the chasms of race and class which define the city. (Ed)
Stay and Fight by Madeline ffitch: The first novel from ffitch, the author of the 2014 short story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn, and a longtime environmental activist living in Appalachia, Stay and Fight is both a social protest novel and the moving story of an unusual family. When Lily and Karen’s son is born, they know they’ll have to leave the women-only land trust where they’ve been living. Helen, who homesteads on 20 acres nearby, invites them to join her, and they settle into a new kind of domestic routine. But over the years the outside world edges nearer, threatening both the family and the Appalachian land that supports them. (Kaulie)
Costalegre by Courtney Maum: Maum’s third novel, her follow-up to I Am Having So Much Here Without You and Touch, is a pivot to historical fiction. Set in 1937, Costalegre is about heiress and art collector Leonora Calaway (modeled after Peggy Guggenheim), who bankrolls a group of Surrealist artists to flee Europe for Mexico. The book, narrated by Leonara’s 15-year-old daughter, has received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly; the latter of which called it “a fascinating, lively, and exquisitely crafted novel.” Samantha Hunt says that Maum’s latest is “as heady, delirious and heartbreaking as a young girl just beginning to fall in love with our world.” (Edan)
The Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman: Most people probably know Lippman as a bestselling crime novelist, but I was recently introduced to her through Longreads, in her delightfully frank essay “Game of Crones” about being an old mother and staying true to her ambition to write a novel every year. Her latest novel is set in 1960s Baltimore and follows a housewife, Maddy Schwartz, who reinvents herself as a reporter after helping to solve a murder. Maddy becomes involved in another murder case when the body of a young woman is found at the bottom of city park lake. (Hannah)
Knitting the Fog by Claudia D. Hernández: This debut memoir of a young girl’s journey from Guatemala to L.A. weaves together personal essay and bilingual poetry. Described by publisher Feminist Press as “harrowing, candid, complex,” and by Bridgett M. Davis as bringing us “the immigrant experience in a refreshingly new light,” this one promises to be both timely and aesthetically exciting in its hybridity. (Sonya)
Jacob’s Ladder by Ludmila Ulitskaya (translated by Polly Gannon): With a cast of characters large enough to populate a mid-size village, Ulitksaya delivers an epic, Tolstoyan Russian novel that may just win her some Anglophone fans but surely will impress no one in the Kremlin. For those ready to invest the time (560 pages), her look at the clash of free will and determinism provides a solid enough critique of the tragic, untidy histories of Russia and Ukraine over the last half of the 20th century in a lithe translation by Polly Gannon. (Il’ja)
Turbulence by David Szalay: In the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted author’s latest book, 12 people take 12 flights around the world, touching each other’s lives in profound and unpredictable ways. Labeled as a novel but structured as a series of linked stories, Turbulence explores the interconnected nature of human relationships today. In Alex Preston’s review for The Guardian, he describes Szalay as an author “whose curiosity about his fellow humans is boundless.” (Jacqueline)
The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele: A worthy addition to the realm of speculative fiction, this debut novel “imagines what happens after the global economy collapses and the electrical grid goes down.” More than just standard techno-challenged-humanity-rendered-atavistic fare, this is a love story. More accurately, the quest for love and its potential in a world demanding to be rebuilt. (Il’ja)
Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage: Set in 1978 war-torn Beirut, this tragicomic novel follows Pavlov, the son of a recently deceased local undertaker, as he joins the Hellfire Society – a secret group his late father was a member of. Throughout the novel, Hage, the second Canadian to win the prestigious Dublin IMPAC Literary Award, asks what it means to live through war, and what can be preserved in the face of imminent death. In Canada, Beirut Hellfire Society was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award for fiction. (Jacqueline)
Say Say Say by Lila Savage: Ella, an artistic grad school dropout turned caretaker, is hired to care for Jill, a woman who’s been left a shell of her old self after a traumatic brain injury leaves her largely nonverbal. But as she watches the dynamic between Jill and her loving husband, Bryn, Ella starts to question her own relationships—and get drawn further into the couple’s. Savage’s debut novel, informed by her own time working as a caretaker, gently digs at the roots of what keeps people together in the face of suffering and loss. (Kaulie)
Shapes of Native Nonfiction edited by Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton: This anthology of essays by Native writers takes the formal art of basket weaving as an organizing theme, so that the authors, who include Deborah A. Miranda, Terese Marie Mailhot, Billy-Ray Belcourt, and Kim TallBear, come together to produce something akin to a well-woven basket. Malea Powell writes that the book “offers us nonfiction that reflects, interrogates, critiques, imagines, prays, screams, and complicates simplistic notions about Native peoples and Native lives.” (Jacqueline)
Three Women by Lisa Taddeo: This highly anticipated debut is not about sex but rather about “the heat and sting of female want,” according to author Lisa Taddeo, who spent years criss-crossing the country and conducting thousands of hours of interviews with women about the sources and consequences of their desires. The result is a triptych: a North Dakota woman who is labeled “a freaky slut” for reporting an affair with her high school English teacher; an unfulfilled Indiana wife and mother who reconnects with a high school crush and winds up “a tangle of need and anxiety”; and a Rhode Island restaurateur whose husband picks her partners, then watches them have sex. The book has already been dubbed “an instant feminist classic.” (Bill)
The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger: Ambition, competition, and the fear of behind left out threaten to rip apart the bond between four families who are offered an unexpected chance at getting their kids into an elite school. The Paris Review notes that this satirical takedown of the concept of meritocracy in contemporary America serves as a timely expose of “the hypocrisy of white liberalism” that drives the pursuit of prestige. Caution: sense of humor required. (Il’ja)
The Wedding Party by Jasmine Guillory: In just two years, Jasmine Guillory has become a New York Times bestselling author and major force (the author of the first romance novel selected for Reese Witherspoon’s coveted book club, for one). Following The Wedding Date and The Proposal, The Wedding Party is one of two novels Guillory has coming out this year—look for Royal Holiday in the fall. (Lydia)
Screen Tests by Kate Zambreno: Kate Zambreno’s Screen Tests is just as ineluctable as the series of short, silent, black-and-white film portraits by Andy Warhol that they’re named after. This too gives a good sense of the book’s structure: a series of short glimpses that look deeply, and often contain autobiographical components or disquisitions. The effect, says Kirkus, is to “spin around like floating objects on an Alexander Calder mobile precariously tied together with ideas and images. Or rather, take Amber Sparks’ assessment: “If Thomas Bernhard’s and Fleur Jaeggy’s work had a charming, slightly misanthropic baby—with Diane Arbus as a nanny— it would be Screen Tests.” (Anne)
A Girl Goes into the Forest by Peg Alford Pursell: Pursell is the founder of the national reading series Why There are Words, as well as the WTAW press, which puts out excellent books each year. Now she publishes a collection of eerie, short (sometimes very short) stories, many of them focusing on themes of mothers and daughters, with themes from folklore and fairytale. Publishers Weekly called the collection “haunting,” “potent,” and “sharp but disturbing.” (Lydia)
What Do We Need Men For? A Modest Proposal by E. Jean Carroll: This is a work of memoir by a woman who was raped by Donald Trump, who is the current President of the United States. A haunting excerpt from the book, with an account of the rape, was published here in The Cut. (Lydia)
Coventry by Rachel Cusk: Cusk’s Outline trilogy—or as I think of it, The Cuskiad—is a masterpiece of modern literature, a formally adventurous exercise in narrative erasure that explores marriage, divorce, family, art, and representation. In her forthcoming essay collection Coventry, Cusk groups these thematic concerns into three sections, broadly: memoir, art, and criticism—although as Publishers Weekly says, the enterprise is bound by “the uses of narrative, particularly for allowing people to make sense of their lives… something Cusk interrogates exceptionally well throughout this well-crafted compilation.” (Adam P.)
The World Doesn’t Require You by Rion Amilcar Scott: If Scott’s talent didn’t catch your attention with Insurrections, his award-winning debut, he’ll draw even more readers with this second book. Cross River, Maryland, the fictional town of his first book, returns in this new story collection. Scott can shift between irreverent and complex in a single story—a single sentence—as in “David Sherman, the Last Son of God”: “David didn’t believe what his older brother preached and wondered if Delante, who now called himself Jesus Jesuson (everyone, though, referred to him as Jeez), really believed, but he didn’t ask.” Also: all praise to story collections like this one that end with an anchoring novella! (Nick R.)
Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino: Tolentino’s essay collection is rangy and deft—nothing is treated superficially here. “I wrote this book because I am always confused,” she says in the introduction, but what follows are ardent and skilled attempts to make sense of the world. She tackles our digital lives (“The internet reminds us on a daily basis that it is not at all rewarding to become aware of problems that you have no reasonable hope of solving.”), athleisure and women’s bodies (“These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image”), her evangelical childhood and departure from belief (“Christianity formed my deepest instincts: it gave me a leftist worldview, an obsession with everyday morality, an understanding of having been born in a compromised situation, and a need to continually investigate my own ideas about what it means to be good.”). Also: contemporary scams, her stint on reality TV, and the panoply of nuptials she attends: “My boyfriend maintains a running Google spreadsheet to keep track of the weddings we’ve been invited to together.” (Nick R.)
The Hotel Neversink by Adam O’Fallon Price: The second novel by Adam O’Fallon Price, a staff writer at The Millions, is the rambunctious, ambitious, decades- and generations-jumping tale of the Sikorsky family, who transform an abandoned mansion into the titular jewel of the Borscht Belt. Inspired by Grossinger’s Catskills Resort Hotel, Price uses a revolving cast of narrators to tell a story that is part murder mystery and part ghost story, with a dark secret lurking at its core. The novel asks a chilling question about the children who disappear from the towns and woods around the Hotel Neversink: Are they victims of coincidence, or part of a calculated plot to destroy the Sikorskys? (Bill)
Everything Inside by Edwidge Danticat: A collection of eight vigorous, compelling stories provides a storyteller’s insight to how migration to and from the Caribbean affected people’s lives, personalities, and relationships. Lovers, deeply wounded by the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010, strive to reunite; an undocumented construction worker pictures his lover and adopted son in the last minute of his life; the christening of a baby reveals the chasm between the three generation of a family. “No one is immune from pain,” as Kirkus Review puts it, “but Danticat asks her readers to witness the integrity of her subjects as they excavate beauty and hope from uncertainty and loss.” (Jianan Qian)
Doxology by Nell Zink: New York City in the ’90s was not quite the hyper-sanitized playground for the super-rich which parts of it feel like today, with Nell Zink giving us a gritty account of the “worst punk band on the Lower East Side” right at the turn of the millennium. As the halcyon days of the 20th-century’s last decade end, grunge seemingly eclipsed with the falling of the twin towers, Doxology uses the personal and musical travails of bandmates Pam, Daniel, and Joe to investigate our current political and environmental moment. True to the Latin meaning of her title, Zink’s Doxology provides a means of praising God in a world where we’re so often faced with the finality of silence. Doxology, rather, provides the cacophony of punk. (Ed)
Drive Your Plow into the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones): The 2018 International Man Booker prize has done it again, this time with a noir murder mystery that is less whodunnit than it is existential inquiry, namely: what are we here for? The protagonist—Janina Duszejko—is a brilliantly rendered Polish Miss Marple, (sort of) who Tokarczuk has asking the hard questions with art that is subtle and penetrating. And, as it turns out, getting her into a lot of trouble at home, with a hard-right leaning Polish press labeling the book “anti-Christian” and the work of “a traitor.” The film adaptation (Spoor) a couple of years back just about shut the country down. Antonia Lloyd-Jones’s translation from Polish sparkles. (Il’ja)
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom: In 2015, Broom published an essay in The New Yorker about her family’s house in New Orleans that has sat with me since I read it. The piece starts with questions: “In the ten years since Hurricane Katrina, what has plagued me most is the unfinished business of it all. Why is my brother Carl still babysitting ruins, sitting on the empty plot where our childhood home used to be? Why is my seventy-four-year-old mother, Ivory Mae, still unmoored, living in St. Rose, Louisiana, at Grandmother’s house? We call it Grandmother’s even though she died ten years ago. Her house, the only one remaining in our family, is a squat three-bedroom in a subdivision just off the River Road, which snakes seventy miles along the Mississippi, where plantation houses sit alongside grain mills and petrochemical refineries.” The next year, she was a Whiting Fellow, and this year, readers can get their hands on the book, a gorgeous work of memoir and reporting about place and family that feels like the apotheosis of a form. (Lydia)
The Trojan War Museum by Ayşe Papatya Bucak: Apollo wanders through a museum, trying to make sense of war and his own history. A chess-playing automaton falls in love. Dead girls tell the story of a catastrophe and its aftermath. Bucak’s debut story collection is a surrealist wunderkammer in which the lines between history and myth, reality and performance, and the cultural and personal are blurred and redrawn. The result: “narratively precise” stories that “are also beautiful vignettes on human culture, deftly probing the fissures and pressure points of history and bringing up new forms,” writes The Millions’ own Lydia Kiesling. (Kaulie)
Inland by Téa Obreht: In 2011, at age 26, Obreht burst onto the literary scene with her first novel The Tiger’s Wife, an inventive, fable-like retelling of the wars that ravaged her native Serbia in the 1990s. Eight years later, Obreht returns with – wait for it – a Western set in the Arizona Territory in 1893. No, we didn’t see that coming, either. Early reviews are rapturous, including one from Booklist that called it “a tornadic novel of stoicism, anguish, and wonder.” Yes, tornadic. (Michael)
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (translated by Stephen Snyder): Critically acclaimed Japanese writer Ogawa’s new novel takes place in a society where objects disappear and where the terrifying Memory Police pursue citizens who recall the disappeared objects. The protagonist is a young novelist who discovers her editor is in danger and decides to hide him beneath her floorboards. The Memory Police explores trauma, loss, memory, and surveillance, and will astound readers. Chicago Tribune calls it “a masterful work of speculative fiction” and Esquire writes, “Ogawa’s taut novel of surveillance makes for timely, provocative reading.” (Zoë)
The Overthrow by Caleb Crain: A new novel from the author of Necessary Errors, The Overthrow is a romance and a story of relationships set against the backdrop of the Occupy movement, exploring, power, idealism, technology, and the way we forge connections in the dystopian world we’ve created. Keith Gessen calls it “a brilliant, terrifying, and entertaining book…part subtle novel of contemporary manners, part intellectual legal thriller, and part prophetic dystopia: Henry James meets Bonfire of the Vanities.” Sign me up. (Lydia)
The Grave on the Wall by Brandon Shimoda: As we read daily of the horrors of detainment camps at the border, poet Brandon Shimoda directs our attention back to a not dissimilar blight in Grave on the Wall. It’s an elegy for Shimoda’s dead grandfather, Midori, who after Pearl Harbor was incarcerated in internment camps despite having lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. Don Mee Choi calls Grave on the Wall “a remarkable exploration of how citizenship is forged by the brutal US imperial forces—through slave labor, forced detention, indiscriminate bombing, historical amnesia and wall.” Shimoda’s remembrance is also for the living, says Karen Tei Yamashita: “we who survive on the margins of graveyards and rituals of our own making.” (Anne)
When I was White by Sarah Valentine: A memoir from the author, translator, and scholar about being raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania as a white person, only to learn at age 27 that her father was a black man. The memoir explores the painful process of uncovering the past, interrogating the decisions her family made, and reconceiving her own identity. Publishers Weekly calls it “a disturbing and engrossing tale of deep family secrets.” (Lydia)
First Cosmic Velocity by Zach Powers: Powers’s debut novel is the story of the big lie behind the Soviet space program: They can send manned flights up, they just can’t seem to get them back down. And so they are using twins – one who will touch the face of God and the other who will stay behind on terra firm to make sure there’s an acceptable, Kremlin-approved PR tour afterward if things go badly up in space. Which they inevitably do. Mixing history and fiction, the book isn’t so much about the foibles of geopolitics as it is about one man’s search for truth in a world built on lies. (Il’ja)
White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination by Jess Row: “White flight” typically refers to the movement of white Americans into segregated communities, but in this work of criticism, Row extends the term to literature. Combining memoir as well as literary, filmic, and musical analysis, Row argues for an understanding of writing as reparative, and fiction as a space in which writers might “approach each other again.” Kirkus calls it “wide-ranging, erudite, and impassioned.” (Jacqueline)
The Pretty One: On Life, Pop Culture, Disability, and Other Reasons to Fall in Love with Me by Keah Brown: The cultural narrative surrounding disability has long been overdue for a complete overhaul, and in her debut book, The Pretty One, Keah Brown offers her refreshing, joyful voice to this movement. Brown, a disability rights advocate and creator of the viral #DisabledAndCute campaign, explores aspects of pop culture, music, family, self acceptance, and love in her essays, all the while challenging society’s assumptions of what it means to be black and disabled. (Kate Gavino)
I Heart Oklahoma! by Roy Scranton: Few critics quit understand the implications of our cultural divisions in the warm autumn of the Anthropocene more than University of Notre Dame English professor Roy Scranton. Exploring themes that he’s written about in collections ranging from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization and We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change, Scranton’s second novel returns us to a badly fractured America. A writer named Suzie travels a broken, pre-apocalyptic America that looks very much like our own nation, a place so “highly refined and audacious and dense that nobody care whether it’s bullshit or not.”
When the Plums Are Ripe by Patrice Nganang: The second in Nganang’s trilogy on Cameroon before and during WWII, When the Plums Are Ripe tells the story of the country’s growing involvement in the conflict as the colonized fight to free their colonizer from Axis control. But the book is as much poetry as history, with a structure calling on oral traditions and a poet-narrator who mourns the wounds of war. Publishers Weekly writes that “with lyrical, soaring prose, Nganang… challeng[es] the Euro-written history of colonialism and replac[es] it with a much-needed African one. The result is a challenging but indispensable novel.” (Kaulie)
Black Light by Kimberly King Parsons: A story collection rooted in the vastness and contradictions of Texas and composed by an author who refuses to shy away from the strange, ugly, and interesting, Black Light has been described as “Friday Night Lights meets Ottessa Moshfegh.” What more could a reader want, really? (Kaulie)
How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi: With racial invective spewed from the Twitterer-in-Chief on down, many white Americans have become increasingly entrenched in their prejudices. Scholar Ibram X. Kendi returns to a subject which he illuminated so well in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,, asking how we avoid both fatalism and despair in imagining what a future, antiracist version of the United States might look like. Kendi’s answers are neither to embrace the myopic obstinacy of “color blindness,” nor the feel-good platitudes of “wokeness,” but rather to acknowledge that the individual responsibility of being antiracist is “an everyday process.” (Ed)
God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss, and Renewal in Middle America by Lyz Lenz: Lenz—a journalist whose profiles and personal essays are absolute must reads—brings a book that combines memoir and journalism. After the 2016 election, Lenz leaves her Trump-supporting husband and her church—and begins to travel to churches across the Midwest to understand the incomprehensible: faith in today’s America. Publishers Weekly’s starred review called the book a “slim but powerful debut on the faith and politics of Middle America.” (Carolyn)
A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin: This debut novel tells the story of Tunde Akinola’s Nigerian family as they struggle to assimilate in the impossibly foreign world of Utah. As Tunde’s father chases his version of the American Dream and his mother sinks into schizophrenia, Tunde will be forced to spend his childhood and young adulthood seeking elusive connections—through his stepmother and stepbrothers, through evangelical religion, through the black students at his middle school and the fraternity brothers at his historically black college. This is a novel that will force readers to rethink notions of family, belonging, memory, and the act of storytelling. (Bill)
Empty Hearts by Juli Zeh (translated by John Cullen): Set in the near future, this novel, which Kirkus describes as a “thoughtful political thriller with a provocative sense of humor,” tells the story of Britta and Babak, who run an agency that provides suicide bombing candidates to activists/terrorists. In this post-Angela Merkel Germany, their agency provides a needed antidote to both the conservative government takeover and liberals’ passive acceptance of the new order. When two unknown suicide bombers show up in an airport, things get complicated. (Jacqueline)
Hard Mouth by Amanda Goldblatt: NEA Fellow Amanda Goldblatt’s first novel is as bold and unflinching as its title suggests. The book follows suburban Maryland-born and raised Denny as she literally runs away from her grief and inability to confront mortality, that has come in the form of her father’s terminal cancer diagnosis. As she flings herself into the wilderness, Denny is wildly unprepared and accompanied only by her imagination (& her imaginary friend, Gene) in what appears like a slow form of suicide. Goldblatt nails suburban MD ennui, outdoor unpreparedness, gritty sex scenes, and a refutation of sentimentality in what R.O. Kwon calls a “blazing feat of a book.” (Anne)
The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates: One of America’s most incisive voices on race and history turns to fiction with a story of a young enslaved man who escapes bondage for the North. Early readers marvel at how Coates manages to interweave a deeply researched portrait of the all-too-real horrors of Southern slavery with sly touches of magical realism. (Michael)
All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg: Emma Cline pinpoints Attenberg’s strength, that she writes about death, family, sex, love, with, “a keen sense of what, despite all the sadness and secrets, keeps people connected.” The critically acclaimed and bestselling author’s seventh novel follows the tangled relationship of a family in crisis as they gather together in a sweltering and lush New Orleans. Their father, a power-hungry real estate developer, is dying. Told by alternating narrators, the story is anchored by daughter Alex, who unearths the secrets of who her father is and what he did. This book is, Zachary Lazar says, “another marvel of intelligence, humor, and soul.” (Claire)
Make it Scream Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison: Jamison (The Empathy Exams) credits the poet William Carlos Williams with a sentence that inspired her title: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream.” To fortify and enlarge the world through eloquence—apt descriptions of Jamison’s new collection, which begins with the story of 52 blue, “the loneliest whale in the world,” whose existence “suggests not just one single whale as metaphor for loneliness, but the metaphor itself as salve for loneliness”—and ends with “The Quickening,” an essay addressed to her daughter: “Eating was fully permitted now that I was doing it for someone else. I had never eaten like this, as I ate for you.” Another wonderful book from this gifted writer. (Nick R.)
Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson: At 56, Jacqueline Woodson is moving and shaking in both YA and adult literature realms. Her new adult novel brings together a clash of social classes via an unexpected pregnancy. Another slim, compressed volume à la Another Brooklyn, Red at the Bone moves “forward and backward in time, with the power of poetry and the emotional richness of a narrative ten times its length.” Two words: can’t wait. (Sonya)
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett: Patchett, who has long straddled the line between literary cred and pop bestsellerdom, follows up her prize-winning 2016 novel Commonwealth with another epic family saga, in this case kicked off by a real estate magnate’s purchase of a lavish suburban estate outside Philadelphia after World War II. Running from the late 1940s to the early 2000s, the novel is billed as “the story of a paradise lost, a tour de force that digs deeply into questions of inheritance, love and forgiveness.” (Michael)
The Testaments by Margaret Atwood: The much-anticipated follow up to The Handmaid’s Tale, this sequel takes place 15 years after the van door slammed on Offred and we were left wondering what was next—freedom, prison or death? The story is told by three female narrators from Gilead. In a note to readers, Atwood says two things influenced the writing of this novel. First, all the questions she’s been asked by readers about Gilead and, second, she adds ominously, “the world we’ve been living in.” (Claire)
Akin by Emma Donoghue: Donoghue is one of our most versatile writers. She does many things well, including historical fiction, middle grade series, and scripts for screen and stage. Akin, like her international bestseller Room, is positioned as contemporary fiction. It’s about a retired professor who plans to travel to Nice, France to discover more about his mother’s wartime past. Two days before the trip, circumstances mean he must take charge of his potty-mouthed pre-teen nephew. As the pair travel together, they uncover secrets about their family and discover a bond and, as the publisher’s blurb says, “they are more akin than they knew.” (Claire)
Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke: The universe will soon award us with a new Attica Locke novel! Heaven, My Home is the follow-up to Locke’s Edgar Award-winning thriller Bluebird, Bluebird, and it once again centers on black Texas Ranger Daren Matthews. This time, he’s pulled into the case of a missing nine-year-old boy—and the boy’s white supremacist family. The jacket copy declares: “Darren has to battle centuries-old suspicions and prejudices, as well as threats that have been reignited in the current political climate, as he races to find the boy, and to save himself.” Attica Locke is one of the best writers working today, and I cannot wait to read this. (Edan)
Furnace of This World: Or, 36 Observations About Goodness by Ed Simon: Simon, a staff writer at The Millions known for his deep dives into literary and intellectual history, meditates on the nature of goodness across 36 learned, suggestive observations. He calls this project “an artifact of things I’ve lost, things I’ve loved, things I’ve feared, things I’ve prayed for,” and presents it as “the moral equivalent of a Wunderkammer—a ‘Wonder Cabinet’— that is a strange collection of occurrences, theories, philosophies, narratives, and fictions.” This curious object is well worth a look inside. (Matt)
How to Be a Family: The Year I Dragged My Kids Around the World to Find a New Way to Be Together by Dan Kois: A terrible snowstorm can derail a well-planned life, and two feet of snow in one day was “the perfect crucible to reveal how broken our family life was. Our household operated like the nation’s air traffic network: we functioned, but forever on the edge of catastrophe.” Kois is funny and sometimes satirical, but always in service of a great end: the very real lament that family life is “flying past in a blur of petty arguments, overworked days, exhausted nights, an inchoate longing for some kind of existence that made more sense.” Kois and his family actually take the dizzying leap to leave behind their lives for a year—a trek that takes them from New Zealand to Kansas—and the result is a unique book that every overstressed and anxious (meaning = every) parent should read. (Nick R)
The Cheffe by Marie Ndiaye: Goncourt and Femina Prix-winning, French-born and Berlin-based Ndiaye brings us another woman-centered novel, this time about a GFC— Great Female Chef. The story is told from the perspective of a male sous-chef (and unrequited lover), from a perspective years onward. Ndiaye’s work is often described as “hypnotic,” so perhaps add this one to your summer-escape TBR list. (Sonya)
Who Put This Song On? by Morgan Parker: Award-winning poet Morgan Parker offers a new coming-of-age story featuring a protagonist that just can’t seem to figure it out. From spending her summer crying in bed to being teased about not being “really black” by her mostly white classmates, 17-year-old Morgan can see clearly why she’s in therapy. Parker’s account of teenage anxiety and depression will speak to readers of all ages, and the prose’s mix of heartbreak and hilarity makes it a prime candidate for film adaptation. Are you paying attention, Netflix? (Kate Gavino)
The Divers’ Game by Jesse Ball: In what Publishers Weekly called an “atmospheric, occasionally mesmerizing tale of haves and have-nots,” Ball (Census) returns with a novel about a society that has rejected equality and embraced brutality. Through vignettes, the novel reveals how the world descended into madness. A dystopian tale imbued with empathy, philosophical musings, and questions about compassion, generational trauma, and humanity. (Carolyn)
Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith: Patti Smith started writing this book on the Lunar New Year’s Day in 2016; she carried the project “in cafes, trains and strange motels by the sea, with no particular design, until page by page it became a book,” as she announced in her Instagram. This memoir evolves around the transformations both in her life and the American political landscape. Intriguing, disturbing yet humorous, with the boundary between fiction and nonfiction blurred, Smith’s work is unlikely to disappoint. (Jianan Qian)
Fly Already by Etgar Keret: Keret’s new short story collection offers all the virtues readers have come to expect from the oft-New Yorker-published Keret: intelligence, compassion, frustration with the limits of human communication, and a playfulness that stays on the right side of whimsy. Whether it’s a father’s helpless desire to protect his son, a boy failing to obtain weed to impress a girl, or two people sharing a smoke on the beach, Keret’s deep interest in human connection feels important in our fractured times. As George Saunders says, “I am very happy that Etgar and his work are in the world, making things better.” (Adam P.)
Out of Darkness, Shining Light by Pettina Gappah: A novel of the group of people who carried David Livingstone’s body (along with his papers and effects) 1500 miles so that he could returned to England, narrated by Halima, the expedition’s cook, and a formerly enslaved man named Jacob. Jesmyn Ward writes, “A powerful novel, beautifully told, Out of Darkness, Shining Light reveals as much about the present circumstances as the past that helped create them.” (Lydia)
Serotonin by Michel Houellebecq (translated by Shaun Whiteside): No contemporary French writer has interceded into the current Anglophone imagination quite as completely as Michel Houellebecq. From novels like The Elementary Particles to Submission, the cynical Houellebecq has explored everything from existentialism to sex tourism, through a voice that is simultaneously traditionalist and nihilistic, and critics and readers have argued how seriously we’re to take the reprehensible—racist, mysoginist, Islamophobic, colonialist—positions of the writer or his characters. Serotonin follows Florent-Claude Labrouste, a depressed libertine and former agricultural engineer who eventually rejects psychotropic medication in favor of a sojourn to the cheese-country of Normandy racked by globalization, where he becomes involved in an insurrection which looks very much like the gilets jaunes movement. Even while Houellebecq’s politics can be reprehensible, ranging from embrace of Brexit to denunciations of #MeToo, Serotonin’s observation of a contemporary capitalism where “people disappear one by one, on their plots of land, without ever being noticed” is instrumental in understanding not just France or Europe, but the world. (Ed)
Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America by Nefertiti Austin: In her debut memoir, Austin, a single black woman, writes about her journey to adopt a black boy out of foster care. In a recent interview, Austin said, “Ultimately, I wrote Motherhood So White out of necessity. I wanted black mothers who come after me to have multiple perspectives on motherhood, not just the mainstream definition of who gets to be a mom in America. I want white mothers to see black mothers on the page and know that we are all allies in the quest for raising compassionate children.” (Edan)
Doppelgänger by Daša Drndic (translated by S.D. Curtis and Celia Hawkseworth): World Literature Today calls this set of linked stories a “haunting requiem for the soul’s death in the wake of postmodernity.” Translation: Drndic’s trademark absurdist humor and image rich style assure that this slim collection will get the synapses firing. (Il’ja)
Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh: In 2016, Amitav Ghosh published The Great Derangement, which argues that contemporary literary fiction, among other art forms, seems unable to directly confront the scale and impact of climate change. In an article for The Guardian, Ghosh writes, of the extreme weather phenomena caused by climate change, “To introduce such happenings into a novel is in fact to court eviction from the mansion in which serious fiction has long been in residence.” Now, the author of the bestselling Ibis trilogy has written a novel that seeks to make a change in that tradition. Gun Island tells the story of rare books-dealer Deen Datta as he travels from India to Los Angeles to Venice, encountering people who will upend his understanding of himself, the world, and the Bengali legends of his childhood. (Jacqueline)
Dominicana by Angie Cruz: Life changes drastically for 15-year-old Ana, when she is uprooted from the Dominican countryside to New York City’s Washington Heights. An arranged marriage allows her, along with her entire family, to emigrate to America, and Ana is desperate to escape. As she opposes and embraces certain aspects of her new home, she makes difficult decisions between her duty to her family and her own heart. This exciting tale of immigration, love, and independence has been praised by the likes of Sandra Cisneros and Cristina Garcia, making it one of the most anticipated coming-of-age stories of the year. (Kate Gavino)
Quichotte by Salman Rushdie: Quichotte, a middle-aged salesman obsessed with television, falls head over heels for a TV star. Despite the impossible love, he sets off on a roadtrip across the US to prove himself worthy of her hand. Meanwhile, his creator, a middle-aged mediocre thriller writer, has to meet his own crisis in life. Rushdie’s new novel is Don Quixote for our time, a smart satire of every aspect of the contemporary culture. Witty, profound, tender, this love story shows a fiction master at his brilliant best. (Jianan Qian)
The Sweetest Fruits by Monique Truong: Three women from disparate backgrounds—Ireland, Cincinnati, and Japan—tell the story of one man: Lafcadio Hearn, a Greek author known for his books about Japanese legends and cultures. In this globetrotting, luminous novel, the three narrators offer an honest, contradictory portrait of the man they knew that highlights the social expectations of their gender, race, and class for their time. Like her first novel, The Book of Salt, The Sweetest Fruits leads readers on a sweeping narrative that poses questions about belonging, existence, and storytelling. (Kate Gavino)
Chimerica by Anita Felicelli: A fantastic, fantastical book built around the country of “Chimerica,” wherein a Tamil American trial lawyer is hard at work on a case…which happens to be a defense of a talking lemur come to life. Set in locations ranging from Oakland to Madagascar, Jonathan Lethem calls Chimerica “remarkable…a coolly surrealist legal thriller—in turns sly, absurd, emotionally vivid, and satirically incisive—that shifts the reader into a world just adjacent to our own.” (Read Felicelli’s conversation with Huda al-Marashi at The Millions here.) (Lydia)
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis: In 1977 Uruguay, a military dictatorship crushes dissent and punishes homosexuality, but five queer women manage to find each other and a village on the beach where they’re safe and free, if only for a week at a time. The five call themselves cantoras, women who sing, and for the next three decades their friendships, beach-side refuge, and cantoras identities help the women find the strength to live openly and defiantly, to revolutionary effect. (Kaulie)
The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy: The protagonist of Levy’s newest would do well to avoid Abbey Road, where he is hit by a car twice, once in 1998, right before a trip to East Germany to bury his father’s ashes, and once again in 2016. From these two brushes with death, Levy spins one of her typically entrancing narratives, one that, like Hot Milk, explores cross-cultural encounters and the strange, intense, and occasionally monstrous nature of familial ties. (Matt)
Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin: The fourth book from Australia’s Tumarkin, whose previous works have been shortlisted for several major literary prizes Down Under, Axiomaticsharply examines how we think about the force of the past on the present in a blend of storytelling, criticism, and meditation. The book spirals out from five axioms—think “Time Heals All Wounds,” “History Repeats Itself,” and “You Can’t Enter The Same River Twice”—to consider stories of struggle, trauma, and the strength of human relationships, creating a new and powerful nonfiction form along the way. (Kaulie)
The Shadow King by Maaza Mengiste: Mengiste’s debut novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, chronicled the life of a family during the chaotic last days of Emperor Haile Selassie’s rule. The figure of Selassie looms over her second novel, The Shadow King, as well, this time in the 1930s as an orphaned servant Hirut is caught in the clash between the emperor’s troops and Mussolini’s fascist invaders. Mengiste’s work bookends this historic era of Ethiopian life, capturing all the damage and hope of war, with prose Salman Rushdie describes as “brilliant… lyrically lifting history towards myth.” (Adam P.)
Pet by Akwaeke Emezi: Emezi’s debut YA novel (following their much-loved Freshwater) sets out to answer a question that plagues every child at some point: Are monsters real, and if they are, do they want to hurt me? The children of the city of Lucille are taught that monsters are imaginary, but when protagonist Jam sees a creature emerge from the previously dead landscape of her mother’s painting, she’s forced to reconsider everything she knows about the world. Soon after, she learns that monsters are targeting her best friend Redemption, which leads her to wonder: How do you stop them if no one believes they exist? (Thom)
The Undying: A Meditation on Modern Illness by Anne Boyer: I hadn’t thought it possible to write beautifully about chemotherapeutic drugs until I read the excerpt from poet Anne Boyer’s The Undying that was published in The New Yorker. Witness: “Adriamycin, is named for the Adriatic Sea, near where it was discovered. I like to think of this poison as the ruby of the Adriatic, where I have never been but would like to go, but it is also called ‘the red devil,’ and sometimes it is called “‘the red death.’” Boyer’s memoir covers developing breast cancer at 41, her treatment, and her double mastectomy, as well as scrutiny of a capitalist driven medical industry. Boyer’s memoir is a “haunting testimony about death that is filled with life,” according to Kirkus. (Anne)
Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry: Fans of the great Irish writer Kevin Barry have reason to rejoice. The prize-winning author of City of Bohane, Dark Lies the Island and Beatlebone is out with a scalding little hotwire of a novel called Night Boat to Tangier. The setup would’ve delighted Beckett. On October 23, 2018, two aged-out Irish drug-runners, Maurice (Moss) Hearne and Charlie Redmon, are sitting in the waiting room of the ferry terminal in the Spanish port of Algeciras. What are they waiting for? Maurice’s estranged daughter. As they wait, the men spin a reverie of past betrayals, violence and romance, with asides on drink, masturbation and the imminence of death. As always with Barry, the writing is slippery, slangy and sinewy, and a pure delight. (Bill)
Rusty Brown by Chris Ware: How long does it take to investigate, narrate, and illustrate an entire consciousness during one half of a typical day? In Chris Ware’s case, almost two decades. Across 350+ pages, Ware’s graphic novel unfolds like a Joycean spin on Grouse County, Iowa, depicting the melancholic, yearning thoughts of Midwestern characters moving through realities shared and cloistered. Doing that at all—let alone in 18 years—is superhuman. (Nick M.)
Find Me by André Aciman: In a most-anticipated list, Aciman’s Find Me may be the most anticipated of all. Set decades after Oliver and Elio first meet in Call Me by Your Name, this novel follows Elio’s father Samuel, who while traveling to Rome to visit his son meets a young woman who changes his life; Elio, a classical pianist who moves to Paris; and Oliver, a New England college professor and family man who yearns to return to Italy. I’m aching to read this and I know I’ll be aching while reading it too. (Carolyn)
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner: The pre-pub blurbs for Lerner’s third novel are ecstatic, with his publisher calling it a breakthrough and Claudia Rankine describing it as “a powerful allegory of our troubled present.” Set in late 1990s Kansas, it centers on a lefty family in a red state. The mother is a famous feminist author; the father, a psychiatrist who specializes in “lost boys.” Their son, Adam Gordon, is a debate champion who unwittingly brings one of his father’s troubled patients into his friend group, to disastrous effect. (Hannah)
Grand Union by Zadie Smith: Grand Union is the first short story collection of Zadie Smith, the award-winning author of White Teeth and The Autograph Man, among others. Ten unpublished new stories will be put alongside with ten of her much-applauded pieces from The New Yorker and elsewhere. Everything, however familiar or small it may seem in daily life, glows in Smith’s brilliant observation. Grand Union is a wonderful meditation on time and place, past and future, identity and the possibility of rebirth. (Jianan Qian)
How We Fight for Our Lives by Saeed Jones: A 2014 NBCC finalist for his poetry collection Prelude to Bruise, How We Fight for Our Lives tells Jones’ coming-of-age as a black gay boy and man in the South via prose-poetry vignettes. From the publisher: “Blending poetry and prose, Jones has developed a style that is equal parts sensual, beautiful, and powerful—a voice that’s by turns a river, a blues, and a nightscape set ablaze.” (Sonya)
Your House Will Pay by Steph Cha: Your House Will Pay is a propulsive and well-plotted novel set in Los Angeles where crime and tension are at an all-time high. In Cha’s narrative that explores race, class, and community in Los Angeles, her characters must confront their histories and truth. Catherine Chung describes Your House Will Pay as “a devastating exploration of grief, shame, and deeply buried truths.” (Zoë)
Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz: In her debut memoir, Jaquira Díaz mines her experiences growing up in Puerto Rico and Miami, grappling with traumas both personal and international, and over time converts them into something approaching hope and self-assurance. For years, Díaz has dazzled in shorter formats—stories, essays, etc.—and her entrée into longer lengths is very welcome. (Nick M.)
The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada (translated by David Boyd): Hiroshima-based fiction writer Hiroko Oyamada has been called one of the most “powerfully strange” new voices to emerge from Japan of late. No surprise then that she cites Franz Kafka and Mario Vargas Llosa as influences. This fall New Directions is publishing The Factory, Oyamada’s first novel to be translated into English, and that was inspired by her experience working as a temp for an auto worker’s subsidiary. The Factory follows three seemingly unrelated characters intently focused on their jobs—studying moss, shredding paper, proofreading documents—though trajectories come together as their margins of reality, and the boundaries between life within and beyond the factory dissolve. (Anne)
Things We Didn’t Talk About When I Was a Girl by Jeannie Vanasco: The CDC estimates 1 in 5 women in the U.S. are raped in their lifetimes, but concealed in those conservative, anonymized figures is the mind-bending enormity of 33,000,000 individual women and their stories. In her latest memoir, Jeannie Vanasco shares hers. Remarkably, Vanasco interviews the former friend who raped her 15 years ago, interweaving their discussions with conversations involving her close friends and peers to produce an investigation of trauma, its effects, and the ways they affect us all. “Courageous” is an inadequate word to describe this project, let alone Vanasco herself. (Nick M.)
Agent Running in the Field by John le Carré: le Carré is set to offer his 25th novel since debuting with Call for the Dead back in 1961. And though the territory is familiar—London, a played out spy, a web of political intrigue—there is nothing tired in the author’s indictment of modern life: we are fickle, selfish, dogmatic, narrow minded and too often cruel bastards. The whole lot of us. My advice: if you have been stuck on thought that Le Carré is writing “spy novels” and you don’t like “spy novels”, you need to rethink. There is perhaps no more thrilling chronicler of the human condition working today. His stories are about people with secrets. You know, us. (Il’ja)
False Bingo by Jac Jemc: The unsettling horror that made Jac Jemc’s The Grip of It such an unnerving read has mutated into an uneasiness that infiltrates the everyday lives depicted in False Bingo, Jemc’s second book of short stories. Jemc’s characters are misfits and dislocated, and their encounters often cross the line where fear becomes reality. There’s a father with dementia who develops an online shopping addiction and an outcast mulling over regret as he taxidermies animals. In essence False Bingo is a “collection of realist fables exploring how conflicting moralities can coexist: the good, the bad, the indecipherable.” (Anne)
Reinhardt’s Garden by Mark Haber: Haber, who has been called “one of the most influential yet low-key of tastemakers in the book world,” is about to raise it to up level with the debut of his novel, Reinhardt’s Garden. This absurdist satire follows Jacov Reinhardt and scribe as they travel across continents in search of a legendary philosopher who has “retired” to the jungles of South America. It’s “an enterprise that makes Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo … come off as a levelheaded pragmatist,” says Hernán Díaz. While Rodrigo Fresán calls it “one of those perfect books” on the level of Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, or Thomas Bernhard’s The Loser. (Anne)
Older Brother by Mahir Guven (translated by Tina Kover): Awarded the Prix Goncourt for debut novel in 2017, Older Brother takes on the Uberization of labor alongside a look at immigration, civil war, and terrorism through the story of two brothers from a French-Syrian family, and their father, a taxi driver whose way of life is utterly at odds with those of his sons. (Lydia)
Last of Her Name by Mimi Lok: In Last of Her Name, the new collection from Chinese author Mimi Lok, the stories’ settings cover a little bit of everything—British suburbia, war-time Hong Kong, modern California—and the diasporic women at the heart of each piece are just as eclectic. The effect is a kaleidoscope of female desire, family, and resilience. “I can’t think of a collection that better speaks to this moment of global movement and collective rupture from homes and history, and the struggle to find meaning despite it all,” writes Dave Eggers. (Kaulie)
The Girl At the Door by Veronica Raimo: Let’s say you fall in love while on vacation. The guy, a professor, seems great. You leave your country and move in with him. You get pregnant. You’re happy. Then: A girl shows up at the door. She’s your boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend, a former student, with details about a violent, drawn-out affair. What now? That’s the premise of this novel, one that dissects sexual harassment and assault from the point of view of both the professor and his girlfriend. Raimo has published two novels in Italy; this is her English-language debut. (Hannah)
Holding On To Nothing by Elizabeth Chiles Shelburne: This debut novel set in the mountains and hollows of Eastern Tennessee will charm you with its warmth and love for its characters, a cast that includes a dog named Crystal Gale. (Which has to be one of the best pet names in fiction.) The novel centers on Lucy Kilgore, a young woman who was planning to leave small town Tennessee but instead ends up getting shotgun-married to Jeptha Taylor, a bluegrass musician with a drinking problem. With too little money and too much alcohol in their lives, their little family is doomed from the start, but Lucy can’t help trying to hold everyone together. (Hannah)
A Peculiar Kind of Immigrant’s Son by Sergio Troncoso: A collection of stories about told from the perspective of a Mexican-American man born to poor parents and making his way through the elite institutions of America. Luis Alberto Urrea calls the book “a world-class collection.” (Lydia)
The Revisioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton: Sexton’s first novel, A Kind of Freedom, was on the longlist for the 2017 National Book Award and appeared on a number of year-end best-of lists. The Revisioners, a multigenerational story focusing on black lives in America, begins in 1925, when farm-owner Josephine enters into a reluctant, precarious relationship with her white neighbor, with disastrous results; nearly 100 years later, Josephine’s descendant, Ava, out of desperation, moves in with her unstable white grandmother. The novel explores the things that happen between; the jacket copy promises “a novel about the bonds between a mother and a child, the dangers that upend those bonds.” (Edan)
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: After the runaway and wholly-deserved success of her magnificent short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Machado returns with a memoir chronicling an abusive relationship. Juxtaposing her personal experience with research and cultural representations of domestic abuse, the book defies all genre and structural expectations. Writer Alex Marzano-Lesnevich writes that Machado “has reimagined the memoir genre, creating a work of art both breathtakingly inventive and urgently true.” (Carolyn)
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: Would you be the nanny to your ex-best-friend’s stepchildren? Yes, really? Okay. What if they were twins? Still with me? What if they exhibited strange behaviors? Still on board? What if they spontaneously caught fire when agitated? Yes? Then you must be the kind of character that only Kevin Wilson can pull off, in this, his third novel that marries the fantastic with the domestic. (Hannah)
Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (translated by Natasha Wimmer): Chilean writer Nona Fernández is revered as one of the most important contemporary Latin American writers and her novel explores the experience of growing up in a dictatorship and trying to grapple with erasure and truth in adulthood. Daniel Alarcón writes, “Space Invaders is an absolute gem…Within the canon of literature chronicling Pinochet’s Chile, Nona Fernández’s Space Invaders is truly unique.” (Zoë)
The Book of Lost Saints by Daniel José Older: Spanning generations, Older’s latest tells the tale of a family split between New Jersey and Cuba, who grapple with the appearance of their vanished ancestor’s ghost. The ancestor, Marisol, went missing in the tumult of the Revolution, taking with her the family’s knowledge of their painful and complicated past. When Marisol visits her nephew, he starts to learn about her story, which hinges on “lost saints” who helped her while she was in prison. (Thom)
They Will Drown in Their Mothers’ Tears by Johannes Anyuru (translated by Saskia Vogel): Anyuru, a Swedish-Ugandan author, took home the Swedish-language August Prize for Fiction for this tale of authoritarianism and hate in modern Europe. After terrorists bomb a bookstore for hosting a provocative cartoonist, one of the terrorists has a vision of the future she may have brought about. Years later, a psychiatrist goes to visit her in the clinic where she’s been institutionalized, and she informs him she’s a traveler from an awful, dystopian future. As she describes a world in which “anti-Swedish” citizens are forced into a ghetto called The Rabbit’s Yard, the psychiatrist grows convinced that her sci-fi predictions are the truth.
What Burns by Dale Peck: Dale Peck has published a dozen books – novels, an essay collection, a memoir, young-adult and children’s novels – and along the way he has won a Lamda Award, a Pushcart Prize, and two O. Henry Awards. Now Peck is out with something new: What Burns, his first collection of short fiction. Written over the course of a quarter-century, these stories are shot through with two threads that run through all of Peck’s writing: tenderness and violence. In “Not Even Camping Is Like Camping Anymore,” for instance, a teenaged boy must fend off the advances of a five-year-old his mother babysits. And in “Bliss,” a young man befriends the convicted felon who murdered his mother when he was a child. Tenderness and violence, indeed. (Bill)
White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue … and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation by Lauren Michele Jackson: Scholar and writer Lauren Michele Jackson, who has written many incisive essays on popular culture and race for Vulture and elsewhere, now publishes her first book, an in-depth exploration of the way white America continues to steal from black people, a practice that, Jackson argues, increases inequality. Eve Ewing says of the book: “We’ve needed this book for years, and yet somehow it’s right on time.” (Lydia)
Vernon Subutex 1 by Virginie Despentes (translated by Frank Wynne): A writer and director dubbed the “wild child of French literature” by The Guardian, Despentes has been a fixture on the French, and global, arts scene since her provocative debut, Baise-Moi. Translated by Frank Wynne, this first in a trilogy of novels introduces us to Vernon Subutex, a louche antihero who, after his Parisian record shop closes, goes on an epic couch-surfing, drug-fueled bender. Out of money and on the streets, his one possession is a set of VHS tapes shot by a famous, recently deceased rock star that everyone wants to get their hands on. (Matt)
The Fugitivities by Jesse McCarthy: The debut novel from McCarthy, Harvard professor and author of essays destined to be taught in classrooms for years to come (among them “Notes on Trap”), The Fugitivities takes place in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Brazil, with Parisian interludes. The novel explores the collision of a teacher in crisis with a basketball coach yearning for a lost love, carrying the former on a journey that will change everything. Of The Fugitivities, Namwali Serpell writes “In exquisite, often ecstatic, prose, McCarthy gives us a portrait of the artist as a young black man—or rather, as a set of young black men, brothers and friends and rivals.” (Lydia)
Jakarta by Rodrigo Márquez Tizano (translated by Thomas Bunstead): A man and his lover are trapped in a room while a plague ravages the city in this “portrait of a fallen society that exudes both rage and resignation.” Tizano fashions an original, astonishing, and terrifyingly unhinged dystopia in this, his debut novel. Thomas Bunstead adds to an impressive resumé with a seamlessly literary and peppery translation from the Spanish. (Il’ja)
Dead Astronauts by Jeff VanderMeer: Not all writers can make you feel human emotions about ectoplasmic goo, but not all writers are Jeff VanderMeer. In his latest spin-off from Borne and The Strange Bird, VanderMeer again invites us to the hallucinatory ruins of an unnamed City, beshadowed by the all-powerful Company, and rife with all manners of mysterious characters. Fish, foxes, and madmen, Oh my. (Nick M.)
“Why are they still bothering with paperbacks?” This came from a coffee-shop acquaintance when he heard my book was soon to come out in paperback, nine months after its hardcover release. “Anyone who wants it half price already bought it on ebook, or Amazon.”
Interestingly, his point wasn’t the usual hardcovers-are-dead-long-live-the-hardcover knell. To his mind, what was the use of a second, cheaper paper version anymore, when anyone who wanted it cheaply had already been able to get it in so many different ways?
I would have taken issue with his foregone conclusion about the domination of ebooks over paper, but I didn’t want to spend my babysitting time down that rabbit hole. But he did get me thinking about the role of the paperback relaunch these days, and how publishers go about getting attention for this third version of a novel — fourth, if you count audiobooks.
I did what I usually do when I’m puzzling through something, which is to go back to my journalism-school days and report on it. Judging by the number of writers who asked me to share what I heard, there are a good number of novelists who don’t quite know what to do with their paperbacks, either.
Here’s what I learned, after a month of talking to editors, literary agents, publishers, and other authors: A paperback isn’t just a cheaper version of the book anymore. It’s a makeover. A facelift. And for some, a second shot.
About ebooks. How much are they really cutting into print, both paperbacks and hardcovers? Putting aside the hype and the crystal ball, how do the numbers really look?
The annual Bookstats Report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which collects data from 1,977 publishers, is one of the most reliable measures. In the last full report — which came out July 2012 — ebooks outsold hardcovers for the first time, representing $282.3 million in sales (up 28.1%), compared to adult hardcover ($229.6 million, up 2.7%). But not paperback — which, while down 10.5%, still represented $299.8 million in sales. The next report comes out this July, and it remains to be seen whether ebook sales will exceed paper. Monthly stat-shots put out by the AAP since the last annual report show trade paperbacks up, but the group’s spokesperson cautioned against drawing conclusions from interim reports rather than year-end numbers.
Numbers aside, do we need to defend whether the paperback-following-hardcover still has relevance?
“I think that as opposed to a re-release being less important, it’s more than ever important because it gives a book a second chance with a new cover and lower cost, plus you can use all the great reviews the hardcover got,” says MJ Rose, owner of the book marketing firm Authorbuzz, as well as a bestselling author of novels including The Book of Lost Fragrances. “So many books sell 2,000 or 3,000 copies in hardcover and high-priced ebooks, but take off when they get a second wind from trade paperback and their e-book prices drop.”
What about from readers’ perspectives? Is there something unique about the paperback format that still appeals?
I put the question to booksellers, though of course as bricks-and-mortar sellers, it’s natural that they would have a bias toward paper. Yet the question isn’t paper versus digital: it’s whether they are observing interest in a paper book can be renewed after it has already been out for nine months to a year, and already available at the lower price, electronically.
“Many people still want the portability of a lighter paper copy,” said Deb Sundin, manager of Wellesley Books in Wellesley, MA. “They come in before vacation and ask, ‘What’s new in paper?’ ”
“Not everyone e-reads,” says Nathan Dunbar, a manager at Barnes & Noble in Skokie, IL. “Many customers tell us they’ll wait for the paperback savings. Also, more customers will casually pick up the paperback over hardcover.”
Then there’s the issue of what a new cover can do. “For a lot of customers the paperback is like they’re seeing it for the first time,” says Mary Cotton, owner of Newtonville Books in Newtonvillle, MA. “It gives me an excuse to point it out to people again as something fresh and new, especially if it has a new cover.”
A look at a paperback’s redesign tells you a thing or two about the publisher’s mindset: namely, whether or not the house believes the book has reached its intended audience, and whether there’s another audience yet to reach. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s Rorschach. Hardcovers with muted illustrations morph into pop art, and vice versa. Geometric-patterned book covers are redesigned with nature imagery; nature imagery in hardcover becomes photography of women and children in the paperback. Meg Wolitzer, on a panel about the positioning of women authors at the recent AWP conference, drew knowing laughter for a reference to the ubiquitous covers with girls in a field or women in water. Whether or not publishers want to scream book club, they at least want to whisper it.
“It seems that almost every book these days gets a new cover for the paperback. It’s almost as if they’re doing two different books for two different audiences, with the paperback becoming the ‘book club book,’” says Melanie Benjamin, author of The Aviator’s Wife. Benjamin watched the covers of her previous books, including Mrs. Tom Thumb and Alice I Have Been, change from hardcovers that were “beautiful, and a bit brooding” to versions that were “more colorful, more whimsical.”
A mood makeover is no accident, explains Sarah Knight, a senior editor at Simon & Schuster, and can get a paperback ordered in a store that wouldn’t be inclined to carry its hardcover. “New cover art can re-ignite interest from readers who simply passed the book over in hardcover, and can sometimes help get a book displayed in an account that did not previously order the hardcover because the new art is more in line with its customer base.” Some stores, like the big-boxes and airports, also carry far more paperbacks than hardcovers. Getting into those aisles in paperback can have an astronomical effect on sales.
An unscientific look at recent relaunches shows a wide range of books that got full makeovers: Olive Kitteridge, A Visit From the Goon Squad, The Newlyweds, The Language of Flowers, The Song Remains the Same, The Age of Miracles, Arcadia, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, as did my own this month (The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.)
Books that stayed almost completely the same, plus or minus a review quote and accent color, include Wild, Beautiful Ruins, The Snow Child, The Weird Sisters, The Paris Wife, Maine, The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger’s Wife, Rules of Civility, and The Orchardist.
Most interesting are the books that receive the middle-ground treatment, designers flirting with variations on their iconic themes. The Night Circus, The Invisible Bridge, State of Wonder, The Lifeboat, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, Tigers in Red Weather, and The Buddha in the Attic are all so similar to the original in theme or execution that they’re like a wink to those in the know — and pique the memory of those who have a memory of wanting to read it the first time around.
Some writers become attached to their hardcovers and resist a new look in paperback. Others know it’s their greatest chance of coming out of the gate a second time — same race, fresh horse.
When Jenna Blum’s first novel, Those Who Save Us, came out in hardcover in 2004, Houghton Mifflin put train tracks and barbed wire on the cover. Gorgeous, haunting, and appropriate for a WWII novel, but not exactly “reader-friendly,” Blum recalls being told by one bookseller. The following year, the paperback cover — a girl in a bright red coat in front of a European bakery — telegraphed the novel’s Holocaust-era content without frightening readers away.
“The paperback cover helped save the book from the remainder bins, I suspect,” Blum says.
Armed with her paperback, Jenna went everywhere she was invited, which ended up tallying more than 800 book clubs. Three years later, her book hit the New York Times bestseller list.
“Often the hardcover is the friends-and-family edition, because that’s who buys it, in addition to collectors,” she says. “It’s imperative that a paperback give the novel a second lease on life if the hardcover didn’t reach all its intended audience, and unless you are Gillian Flynn, it probably won’t.”
There’s no hard-and-fast rule about when the paperback should ride in for that second lease. A year to paperback used to be standard, but now a paperback can release earlier — to capitalize on a moderately successful book before it’s forgotten — or later, if a hardcover is still turning a strong profit.
At issue: the moment to reissue, and the message to send.
“Some books slow down at a point, and the paperback is a great opportunity to repromote and reimagine,” says Sheila O’Shea, associate publisher for Broadway and Hogarth paperbacks at the Crown Publishing Group (including, I should add, mine). “The design of a paperback is fascinating, because you have to get it right in a different way than the hardcover. If it’s a book that relates specifically to females you want that accessibility at the table — women drawn in, wondering, Ooh, what’s that about.”
The opportunity to alter the message isn’t just for cover design, but the entire repackaging of the book — display text, reviews put on the jacket, synopses used online, and more. In this way, the paperback is not unlike the movie trailer which, when focus-grouped, can be reshaped to spotlight romantic undertones or a happy ending.
“Often by the time the paperback rolls around, both the author and publicist will have realized where the missed opportunities were for the hardcover, and have a chance to correct that,” says Simon & Schuster’s Sarah Knight. “Once your book has been focus-grouped on the biggest stage — hardcover publication — you get a sense of the qualities that resonate most with people, and maybe those were not the qualities you originally emphasized in hardcover. So you alter the flap copy, you change the cover art to reflect the best response from the ideal readership, and in many cases, the author can prepare original material to speak to that audience.”
Enter programs like P.S. (Harper Collins) and Extra Libris (Crown Trade and Hogarth), with new material in the back such as author interviews, essays, and suggested reading lists.
“We started Extra Libris last spring to create more value in the paperback, to give the author another opportunity to speak to readers. We had been doing research with booksellers and our reps and book club aficionados asking, What would you want in paperbacks? And it’s always extra content,” says Crown’s O’Shea. “Readers are accustomed to being close to the content and to the authors. It’s incumbent on us to have this product to continue the conversation.”
Most of a paperback discussion centers on the tools at a publisher’s disposal, because frankly, so much of a book’s success is about what a publisher can do — from ads in trade and mainstream publications, print and online, to talking up the book in a way that pumps enthusiasm for the relaunch. But the most important piece is how, and whether, they get that stack in the store.
My literary agent Julie Barer swears the key to paperback success is physical placement. “A big piece of that is getting stores (including the increasingly important Costco and Target) to take large orders, and do major co-op. I believe one of the most important things that moves books is that big stack in the front of the store,” she says. “A lot of that piece is paid for and lobbied for by the publisher.”
Most publicists’ opportunities for reviews have come and gone with the hardcover, but not all, says Kathleen Zrelak Carter, a partner with the literary PR firm Goldberg McDuffie. “A main factor for us in deciding whether or not to get involved in a paperback relaunch is the off-the-book-page opportunities we can potentially pursue. This ranges from op-ed pieces to essays and guest blog posts,” she says. “It’s important for authors to think about all the angles in their book, their research and inspiration, but also to think about their expertise outside of being a writer, and how that can be utilized to get exposure.”
What else can authors do to support the paperback launch?
Readings have already been done in the towns where they have most connections, and bookstores don’t typically invite authors to come for a paperback relaunch. But many are, however, more than happy to have relaunching authors join forces with an author visiting for a new release, or participate in a panel of authors whose books touch on a common theme.
And just because a bookstore didn’t stock a book in hardcover doesn’t mean it won’t carry the paperback. Having a friend or fellow author bring a paperback to the attention of their local bookseller, talking up its accolades, can make a difference.
I asked folks smarter than I about branding, and they said the most useful thing for authors receiving a paperback makeover is to get on board with the new cover. That means fronting the new look everywhere: the author website, Facebook page, and Twitter. Change the stationery and business cards too if, like I did, you made them all about a cover that is no longer on the shelf.
“Sometimes a writer can feel, ‘But I liked this cover!’” says Crown’s O’Shea. “It’s important to be flexible about the approach, being open to the idea of reimagining your own work for a broader audience, and using the tools available to digitally promote the book with your publisher.”
More bluntly said, You want to sell books? Get in the game. Your hardcover might have come and gone, but in terms of your book’s rollout, it’s not even halftime yet.
“The paperback is truly a new release, and a smart author will treat it as such,” says Randy Susan Meyers, author The Murderer’s Daughters, her new novel The Comfort Of Lies, and co-author of the publishing-advice book What To Do Before Your Book Launch with book marketer and novelist M.J. Rose. “Make new bookmarks, spruce up your website, and introduce yourself to as many libraries as possible. Bookstores will welcome you, especially when you plan engaging multi-author events. There are opportunities for paperbacks that barely exist for hardcovers, including placement in stores such as Target, Costco, Walmart, and a host of others. Don’t let your paperback launch slip by. For me, as for many, it was when my book broke out.”
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its massive 2013 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 154 novels on the list, nominated by 120 libraries in 44 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2011 (including translations).
Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary tendencies of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.
Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least seven libraries.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (15 libraries representing Australia, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, England, Germany, Greece, Ireland, the Netherlands, and the United States)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (9 libraries representing Belgium and the United States)
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt (9 libraries representing Canada, Ireland, and the United States)
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (9 libraries representing Austria, Ireland, Norway, and the United States)
The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (7 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, and the United States)
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst (7 libraries representing Belgium, the Czech Republic, England, Greece, New Zealand, Russia, and the United States)
You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:
In Canada, Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
In Australia, Autumn Laing by Alex Miller
In New Zealand, The Conductor by Sarah Quigley
There were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:
From Iceland, The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma
From India, The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
From Jamaica, The Goat Woman of Largo Bay by Gillian Royes
From Mexico, My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
From Sweden, The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson
When author Pauls Toutonghi set out to write his first book, he made himself a promise: he would not be another stereotype of “the debut novelist writing about his life.” So Toutonghi penned a “really terrible” World War Two novel followed by a cringe-worthy attempt at experimental fiction—a choose-your-own-adventure rip off. He never wrote in the first person, lest readers assume he was writing about himself. He didn’t sell either book; his career—or lack thereof—was a disaster.
Eventually, Toutonghi gave up on his rigid strategy of avoidance and did what any smart writer does: he let the story and characters lead him, instead of the other way around. Toutonghi is half Latvian, half Egyptian and was raised in the U.S. He sold Red Weather, a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old Latvian-American boy, followed by Evel Knievel Days, about a young Egyptian-American man in search of his father. Toutonghi wrote both books in the first person. And yet, he considers this less than a complete success: “I was reading Dickens,” he wrote in a recent essay for Salon, “who kept himself away from the page…and I can’t help wondering if anything is lost in the frank disclosures of our modern, first-person, memoir-driven fiction.”
This is perhaps the greatest hang-up of the modern novelist—that fiction is somehow unsophisticated or inherently cliché if it is rooted in the writer’s own life, and that writers should be creative enough to invent entirely new worlds and find drama only in the unfamiliar. None of that is true, of course: Bookstores are full of beautiful novels like Toutonghi’s, and reviewers often celebrate autobiographical debuts. And yet this fear of self-reliance can be limiting, almost crippling.
But if you talk to writers who have taken the autobiographical plunge, you’ll hear an almost universal relief—that writing about yourself allows you to follow your best instincts. Patrick DeWitt, author of The Sisters Brothers, spent a long time writing books that even his wife was unimpressed by. His problem, he decided: He was too afraid of seeming like “the white guy feeling sorry for himself.” But hey: in some way, that’s what he was. “I needed subject matter that was familiar to me if I wanted to go the distance.”
So where does this fear come from? Today’s literary criticism, for one. Laura Miller, who reviews books for Salon, is often turned off by coming-of-age debuts, particularly from writers who have just come of age themselves. She has some words for, say, white girls from Connecticut: “Your book could be really well written,” she says. But “you feel like you’ve read a million of them. It’s the story about this person growing up and learning to live and to love and whose parents get divorced and the mom dies of cancer. It feels like watching an episode of Law and Order—but that’s not really fair, because Law and Order is reliably entertaining.”
Even the New York Times can be dismissive like this. In 2005, when Deborah Solomon wrote about Jonathan Safran Foer, she praised him for avoiding “the usual rites of first-noveldom. He never wrote a tremblingly sensitive account of his adolescence, a novel featuring toxic mothers and passive, gone-to-sleep fathers, a novel abounding with malls and S.U.V.’s, and suburban anomie. Instead, he found his inspiration in the darkly fragmented masterworks of European modernism (Kafka, Joyce, Bruno Schulz)…”
But do not be fooled: Everything Is Illuminated is a wonderful book, both highly innovative and emotionally powerful, but it is also a coming-of-age, semi-autobiographical story about a young white man coming to understand himself. Solomon would never belittle Foer’s book by writing in these exact terms, but when she speaks of “the usual rites of first-noveldom,” she’s not making a neutral statement. She’s making a derogatory one. She’s throwing all of these other books—and which books, by the way?—into the dustbin, castigating them all as navel-gazing and small-minded.
And you wonder what kept Toutonghi and DeWitt from writing about their own lives.
Some writers were fortunate enough to begin writing before reading much literary criticism. “I felt free to take from personal experience,” says Justin Torres, author of the critically acclaimed and heavily autobiographical debut novel We The Animals. After the book, he says, he’d often meet writers who came out of MFA programs and seemed to believe he’s navel-gazing. “You’re mind-gazing,” he corrects. “You’re turning yourself outward, challenging your own assumptions and trying to make meaning out of life. I love Dickens, but thank god not everyone tries to write like him.” (In fact, Laura Miller cuts Torres a break here because We The Animals is based on Torres’s experience growing up gay and underprivileged in upstate New York. “To be crass,” she says, “his book was unusual in the type of people it was about. That was refreshing.”)
When writers ask Torres, “Why write fiction if you want to write about yourself?”, he tells them there’s a magic in translating personal experience into make-believe: “The composites become characters, and the scraps of lived experience morph, so that what you end up with is wholly transformed.”
And the transformation is key. There are a finite number of experiences in the world and the trick is how to present them in a way that is both relatable and unique. It would be idiotic for a young author not to write a book based on her adolescence in Connecticut, if that’s what she’s compelled to write. And if her protagonist has a toxic mother or hangs out at the mall, it would be disingenuous not to include those details. But including them doesn’t necessarily mean you’re painting by numbers or writing a story that is narcissistic. “You just have to ask yourself, ‘What can I bring to literature by writing about this?’” Torres says. To him, authors who write outside their own experience have the exact same challenge as those writing close to the bone: how best to say something valuable. “There’s a lot of people writing formulaic gunslinger Cormac McCarthy fiction,” he says.
The literary world didn’t always dismiss autobiography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway are all rooted in their authors’ lives. It’s impossible to trace this hang-up back to its origin, but Toutonghi has a suspicion of what triggered it: a resistance, especially prevalent in the MFA world, to the commoditization of fiction.
Literature is an art, of course—though like in any art, there are those who hate to also think of it as a business. Writers who are overwhelmingly focused on craft and style might believe that writing the story of one’s young life is too crass, too obvious, and, god-forbid, too sellable. “Writers see that autobiographical work is more marketable, so many move in that direction,” Toutonghi says. And the purists do the opposite.
Whether the market is really dictating authors’ subject matter is debatable, but it’s certainly true that right now mainstream publishing will unabashedly use an author’s back story to sell his or her book. Two recent debut novels that share similarities with Everything is Illuminated—The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht and No One Here Except For All of Us by Ramona Ausubel—have been marketed with the author’s life as a selling point, as if biography is the ultimate “truth” of their stories.
That’s certainly news to emerging authors. “I didn’t realize my life would be the thing I’d be talking about in the interviews,” Torres said. Patrick DeWitt told me that most interviews about his novel Ablutions revolved around parsing the imaginary parts of the book from the real ones. “It became sort of a drag,” he said.
But there’s an upside to this marketing hook, at least for me, as I shopped around my own debut: a semi-autobiographical, prep school novel called The Year of the Gadfly. Editors clearly saw the autobiographical material as a positive thing, and a potential way to market the book. Until then, I’d been so embarrassed about writing from my life that throughout my three-year MFA, I never told anybody where the story originated. I was just another white girl from Connecticut after all (well, actually, Washington DC, but same difference), writing about a young woman coming of age. I spent years feeling like a failure before I’d even started writing, all because I was terrified of producing a cliché. If only I could have written a World War II epic with a chose your own adventure twist.
But I never would have finished writing that sort of book. The Year of the Gadfly took me seven years from conception to publication. And my personal connection to the story was a key part of my stamina. It’s what fueled me to work so tirelessly in pursuit of truly unique characters and a compelling plot. My editor bought my book because the manuscript kept her reading all night. To her, to me, and hopefully to my readers, that’s all that really matters.
In the lead story of Rajesh Parameswaran’s acclaimed first collection, I Am An Executioner, a Bengal tiger escapes from an American zoo and runs amuck. “The Infamous Bengal Ming” is hair-raising, but all I could think of while reading it was: Not one more tiger-escaping-from-zoo story?
Tiger Lit has never been so popular. Look at the number of award-winning fictions in the last decade in which tigers escape from zoos. There’s Rajesh Parameswaran’s story (the collection may well win a prize); Téa Obreht’s Orange Prize-winning The Tiger’s Wife; Rajiv Joseph’s Pulitzer-finalist play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo; Carol Birch’s Booker-shortlisted Jamrach’s Menagerie; Aravind Adiga’s Booker-winner The White Tiger, in which the tiger’s escape is a metaphor for breaking out of the cage of poverty; and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, which also bagged a Booker. And we’re just talking tigers here, not animals-escaping-from-zoo fictions, which would give us Salman Rushdie’s Luka and the Fire of Life, Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife, and no doubt several others.
All kinds of besotted, bombed-out, starving, mangy, metaphoric and misunderstood man-eaters are now on the loose. Not since Humbert Humbert got into his car with a different sort of lust have our literary highways been more unsafe — or more exhilarating. From the roars of approval that have greeted each new work, it would appear that critics and jurors, having tasted blood, can’t get enough of this killer app generously spattered with words like rippling, rolling, muscular, tawny, fiery, flaming, red, pink, orange, carrot, golden, amber, yellow, black, musky, sour, and, of course, stripe-lashed.
The grandfather of modern escapee Tiger Lit is probably the noted Indian writer R. K. Narayan, whose A Tiger for Malgudi, published in 1983, ends with a former circus tiger and a yogi wandering companionably into the hills. Ironically, very few contemporary Indian writers in English would dare to write about tigers today (except metaphorically like Adiga did) for fear of being pummeled for peddling exotica — Adiga got pummeled anyway for peddling poverty — even though the tiger, widely worshiped for its unlimited power and fertility, is about as exotic to India as poverty is. All the fictions mentioned above are essentially Western (Adiga’s apart), despite a dander of Indianness, in that either the writer or the tiger is a person of Indian origin (except for Téa Obreht who is Serbian-American and her tiger Siberian, but whose novel evokes India through its frequent invocations of Kipling’s The Jungle Book). Both Rajesh Parameswaran and Rajiv Joseph are Indian-American, and all the cats are Bengal tigers — Joseph even specifies, with what one hopes is parochial satire, that his cat is from the Sunderbans in “West Bengal”, thereby ruling out any chance of it being Bangladeshi.
The tigers are a mixed bunch ranging from the mangy to the magnificent. Some of them are regular chaps with a healthy disdain for man, others are Blakesian creatures tormented by their dietary preference for juicy children. Indeed, a spiritual subtext runs like spoor through these works, deepening the roots of textual kinship beyond that of a common plot line. Perhaps this braiding of reality and fable into a meaty mysticism is inevitable in stories where tigers are orphans, atheists, metaphors, stowaways and ghosts; where they fall in love with their zoo keeper and are petted by little boys, deaf-mutes and derelicts; flee German, American and NATO bombs; catch flying fish alongside a young boy on a lifeboat; bite the hand that feeds them and, in an aching passage on what war does to caged animals, chomp on their own legs to assuage their hunger.
At the raw, red heart of this literature beats the central question: where do animals fit in the social contract? Do they fit in the deadening comfort of the zoo, where they are fed pounds and pounds of glistening red meat and organs without having to raise a whisker? How do displacement and captivity deform their souls? What happens during war? In every story, the wild and jagged chiaroscuro of the tiger’s stripes is offset against the leaden symmetry of its cage. “Captivity and freedom,” says Parameswaran in an interview to Granta, “are fundamental themes in American history and in literature broadly. Vladimir Nabokov says that Lolita was inspired by the story of an ape in a zoo ‘who, after months of coaxing by a scientist, produced the first drawing every charcoaled by an animal: this sketch showed the bars of the poor creature’s cage.” Obreht says that she felt a sneaking sympathy for Kipling’s universally reviled Shere Khan, and that her own tiger was a kind of corrective to that mean, buffoon image. Clearly, she speaks for her pack. When the various tigers break free, and the killings begin, authorial awe is palpable in the treatment of the way this endangered predator discovers its primitive natural instinct, its livid sense of smell, and the unbelievably sweet taste of freshly killed meat.
Despite occasional lapses into sentimentalism and garrulity — tiger spiritualism can get tricky — these imaginative and empathetic fictions go a long way to deepening our understanding of the shared mammalian impulses of love, violence, freedom, and above all, a lust for life.
“The Infamous Bengal Ming” by Rajesh Parameswaran
This story could easily be called “Lost in Translation.” Ming the tiger is in love with his bald, chubby zoo keeper Kitch. But then Kitch mistakes Ming’s love for aggression and smacks him on the nose with a thin, long stick that he always carries but has never ever used before. Hell hath no fury like a tiger scorned. Ming pounces on Kitch, and love bites him like a vampire, “just once, hard and quick” in the neck. But never having hurt a man in his life, Ming is clueless about his own strength and is aghast at what he has done. He tries desperately to lap at Kitch’s neck to stanch the flow, and then, in a spine-tingling introduction of menace, realizes that he can’t stop licking because “Kitch’s blood was delicious.” In that one line, a killer is born. Ming breaks free, and feels a “strange and terrifying euphoria.” The story continues in this darkly comic vein with the bungling, well-meaning tiger trying to help a human cub (even though it smells terrible) by using his giant mouth to provide “a warm, comforting womb for it,” only to be filled with self-loathing when he realizes that he has “stupidly, inadvertently, recklessly suffocated it.” He even roars encouragingly at it from his “hot and humid lungs” but it refuses to stir. Parameswaran’s prose has the tender-savage texture of a rare steak veined with blood, and even though one feels a juddering revulsion when Ming the merciless chomps blissfully on fresh viscera and declares, “I have never felt so much love in all my life,” it also feels utterly and helplessly right.
Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch
Jamrach’s tiger is trigger rather than theme of Birch’s Victorian-era novel. He stars only in the first few pages of the story, when he breaks out of his cage and meets dreamy, young Jaffy Brown. That brief encounter in a filthy London market, during which Jaffy strokes the tiger on the nose and is gently picked up by the scruff of his neck, radically changes his fortunes. By the time Jaffy is carried home to his mother, his head, which a few minutes ago, was smaller than the tiger’s paw, now feels larger that “St. Paul’s dome” and is bursting with tiger love. Not only is this regal tiger-man cub encounter (based on a true event) an inversion of the Shere Khan-Mowgli hate-fest, but Birch gives us with what is easily one of the most eloquent descriptions of a tiger’s face as seen through a boy’s wonder-struck eyes. Her calm, Zen-like paean has resonances of Blake’s “fearful symmetry”, but instead of the dread hand of fear, an intense stirring of awe is what one feels.
Here’s Jaffy talking about his tiger:
The Sun himself came down and walked on earth…This cat was the size of a small horse, solid, massively chested, rippling powerfully about the shoulders. He was gold, and the pattern painted so carefully all over him, so utterly perfect, was the blackest black in the world. His paws were the size of footstools, his chest snow white…He drew me like honey draws a wasp. I had no fear. I came before the godly indifference of his face and looked into his clear yellow eyes. His nose was a slope of downy gold, his nostrils pink and moist as a pup’s. He raised his thick, white dotted lips and smiled, and his whiskers bloomed…Nothing in the world could have prevented me from lifting my hand and stroking the broad warm nap of his nose. Even now I feel how beautiful that touch was. Nothing had ever been so soft and clean…he raised his paw—bigger than my head—and lazily knocked me off my feet. It was like being felled by a cushion.
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo by Rajiv Joseph
Rajiv Joseph’s brutal play was inspired by a bizarre but true news report of a tiger in a bombed-out Baghdad zoo biting off the hand of an American soldier. This scathing critique of the Iraq war uses grotesque comedy and magic realism to devastating effect. Joseph’s tiger chomps the right hand of a soldier who is sweetly but stupidly trying to feed it a Slim Jim. The tiger is then shot dead with Uday Hussein’s gold gun which the solider has looted along with a gold toilet seat he plans to flog on eBay. Tiger becomes a mangy, ghetto-mouthed ghost who stalks through the city saying “motherfucker” and gets completely spooked by the “burned and skeletal” animal topiary in Uday Hussein’s private garden, an eerie stand-in for a perverted Eden. “I mean, what the fuck is this supposed to be?…Vegetative beasts?…People. First they throw all the animals in a zoo and then they carve up the bushes to make it look like we never left.”
The tiger hates the fact that his ghost has been condemned to wander this burning city, and thinks of himself as Dante in Hades. In a broader examination of war and man’s affinity for violence, he recalls how he had once devoured a girl and a boy, and wonders if that makes him evil, only to solemnly conclude: “It wasn’t cruel, it was lunch.”
The only reason this damning play managed to be staged on Broadway – which loves bombshells but hates bombs – was because it had the crowd-pulling cat on its cast. Unfortunately, the tiger’s precious monologues are the one off-key note in this otherwise pitch-perfect play. Like the one-handed solider who pays a young Iraqi prostitute to stand behind him and help him jerk off because his new robotic right hand can’t do it and his left hand can’t get the angle right, the tiger’s belabored intellectual masturbation has the same cack-handed feel.
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht
Obreht’s novel has one main tiger (the titular husband) and two in walk-on roles, though walk-on is a cruel term for Zbogom (Freedom) who, crazed with fear and hunger during the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, begins to “eat his own legs, first one then another,” in a bloody metaphor for the fragmentation of the country.
The main tiger is another war victim, but of the German bombs that pounded Belgrade in 1941. By the time he breaks free, he is mangy, missing teeth and a “host for leeches.” The streets are littered with corpses, so he feasts on “the dense watery taste of the bloated dead” until he makes his first kill, a juicy young calf, and is sent into an ecstasy of longing for fresh meat, bovine or human. He begins to haunt a mountain village, and the villagers, who have never seen a tiger before, are convinced that a yellow-eyed devil has descended. The only two who are unafraid are the narrator’s grandfather, then a young boy addicted to Jungle Book, and the butcher’s wife, a teenage, deaf-mute Muslim girl with large eyes and a runny nose, whom the butcher calls bitch and beats to a pulp.
Obreht’s novel is deeply political but curiously nameless — there are no Serbians, Bosnians or Allied Forces, and the country is not identified. The only two outsider-enemies who are identified are the tiger and the Muslim girl. A brief and wondrous kinship ignites between these two outcasts. She steals out at night to feed him meat from the smoke house, and when the butcher mysteriously dies and she turns out to be pregnant, the village is convinced that she has become the tiger’s wife. This fable was inspired by Beauty and the Beast, and Obreht is on the mark when she says that the tiger’s voice “came very naturally to her and felt right.” With crafted, velveteen prose, she evokes the tiger’s mythic presence, his warm, sour smell and “big red, heart clenching and unclenching under the ribs.”
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
Balram Halwai, a desperately poor man from rural India, and the titular character of this unsparingly harsh novel, is employed as the chauffeur of a corrupt feudal family in Delhi. Servant and master represent the two Indias — the India of darkness and the India of light, and Balram is consumed by an almost deranged desire to escape his India, haunted as he is by the memory of his tubercular rickshaw-puller father. Nor is he satisfied with the bones that have been thrown him — a new uniform and regular meals. “In the old days,” he says, “there were one thousand castes and destinies in India. These days there are just two castes: men with big bellies and men with small bellies and only two destinies: eat or get eaten up.”
The predatory analogy recurs when he compares the plight of the poor to hens in a chicken coop. “Hundreds of pale hens and brightly colored roosters, stuffed tightly into wire-mesh cages…They see the organs of their brothers lying around them. They know they’re next. Yet they do not rebel. They do not try to get out of the coop. The very same thing is done with human beings in this country.”
Balram doesn’t want to be eaten. The law of the jungle says that the only way not to be eaten is to become the eater, the tiger. But not any tiger. He realizes this when he visits the National Zoo in Delhi, where he sees that rare and special beast, a white tiger, pacing restlessly in his pen like “the slowed-down reels of an old black-and-white film.” The tiger, he says, was “hypnotizing himself by walking like this — it was the only way he could tolerate his cage.” Suddenly, the tiger stops, turns and looks him in the eye. In that piercing, epiphanic moment, so potent that he faints with rapture, Balram realizes that he “can’t live the rest of his life in a cage.” If he has to kill to break free, well, the India of Light has gotten away with murder.
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
A garrulous, funny, and moving fable of faith and survival, which Barack Obama called “an elegant proof of God and the power of storytelling.” But first things first. Martel’s talkative narrator, the Hindu-Muslim-Christian Pi Patel, should get a gold medal for coming up with the most extravagant analogies ever used to describe a tiger’s bits and pieces — including its feces.
Pi’s heightened observations are the result of him being shipwrecked on a lifeboat with a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger called Richard Parker for company. So here goes. The “flame-colored carnivore” has paws larger than “volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica” and a round head larger than the “planet Jupiter;” his mouth is “an enormous pink cave” with teeth like “long yellow stalactites and stalagmites” and a tongue “the size and color of a rubber hot-water bottle;” his ears are “perfect arches;” his feces (which hungry Pi tries to eat and spits out) “a big ball of gulab jamun but with none of the softness;” his mating cry “as rich as gold or honey and as spine-tingling as the depth of an unsafe mine or a thousand angry bees;” and his leaping body “a fleeting, furred rainbow.” Want more? Pi is positively rapturous on his first-mate’s “carrot-orange face:” “The patches of white above the eyes, on the cheeks and around the mouth came off as finishing touches worthy of a Kathakali dancer. The result was a face that looked like the wings of a butterfly and bore an expression vaguely old and Chinese.”
For 227 days, during which he swings between boredom and terror, Pi and the Kathakali-Chinese butterfly coexist. They make it because Pi manages to cow the horribly seasick tiger with shrill blasts from an orange whistle and keep them both alive by catching turtles and flying fish, having cannily divined that the zoo tiger looks upon him as a food provider and will spare him if he continues to provide. As his salt-encrusted body blisters and burns and his clothes fray to shreds, the vegetarian Pi discovers the joy of drinking “the fresh-tasting fluid from the eyes of large fish.” He goes from being sick with fear of Richard Parker to the realization that without him for company, he will lose the will to survive. Eventually, his prayers to Jesus, Mary, Muhammad, and Vishnu are answered and the two mammals are saved. But Pi is devastated, when, without so much as a backward glance Richard Parker slinks into the Mexican jungle. For the rest of his life he is haunted by this cold-hearted desertion, the lack of a proper goodbye. Perhaps Pi might derive some consolation from what the Indian poet Eunice de Souza has to say about Richard Parker’s haughty species in a poem called “Advice to Women:”
if you want to learn to cope with
the otherness of lovers.
Otherness is not always neglect –
Cats return to their litter trays
when they need to.
Don’t cuss out of the window
at their enemies.
That stare of perpetual surprise
in those great green eyes
will teach you
to die alone.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
One is tempted to attach the pop-cultural sobriquet “overnight sensation” to writer Edith Pearlman’s current moment in the sun. (She quotes comedian Danny Kaye when I used the phrase). As it is, Ann Patchett’s introduction to Binocular Vision (Lookout Books), Pearlman’s award-winning story collection and any number of reviews ask the question, “Why have I not heard of this fine writer before?”
Why indeed? Pearlman has published over 250 short fictions and works of non-fiction in all the usual (and some unusual) places, and has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, New Stories from the South, The Pushcart Prize Collection,and The O. Henry Prize Stories Collection.
My own take on Ms. Pearlman’s fair-weather fame has something to do with the limited attention paid to the practitioners of short fiction — when I grouped her in the company of much heralded short story maestros Alice Munro and William Trevor, Edith blushed (though she did not demur, false modesty is not an attribute she has).
As is the case with my author colloquium, Edith Pearlman and I talked about many things – Tales From Shakespeare, Hermes typewriters, Penelope Fitzgerald, reading Dickens, the task of literature, Aunt Jemima cookie jars, and more.
Robert Birnbaum: What was the first book you remember reading?
RB: How old were you?
EP: I don’t know – eight. You asked about the first book I remember reading — I am sure there were books I read before then. My aunt taught me to read at four. I think we read [Lamb] together.
RB: How did she teach you?
EP: Some kids are ready to read. I don’t think they need much teaching and I was one of those. My grandson is the same way.
RB: Your reading career started in earnest when, at age six?
EP: I suppose so. There were plenty of children’s books around — maybe I read Five Little Peppers and How They Grew or–
RB: After reading Lamb were you a fully engaged reader?
EP: Then I read the plays in order. (Both laugh). No, I think I went back to Mary Poppins. I read Lamb with my aunt.
RB: And when did your writing career start?
EP: It started even earlier. I started a book, I think, at the age of three. And it was called All About Jews.
RB: I have recently come across three writers who began writing really young – Gary Shteyngart wrote a novel when he was six or seven. And Ben Katchor, he started early.
EP: I started to write the book at three, but I didn’t get any further than the title.
RB: Really – writer’s block? (Both laugh).
EP: I think so.
RB: Will you ever revisit that story?
EP: I have revisited it often in interviews.
RB: I mean All About Jews.
EP: Probably not.
RB: Are there generalizations with which one can describe short form fiction writers? For instance, many novelists write short fiction, but it seems that short fiction practitioners don’t often write novels.
EP: It is something that clings to you and that you fall in love with. And though I love to read novels and so do my colleagues, I have no wish to write in the long form. It’s my destiny.
RB: Have you ever tried?
EP: I started to write — actually I finished writing a mystery story with a friend but it wasn’t very good. And no — I don’t think I ever have.
RB: How do you know it wasn’t any good?
EP: Well, nobody took it.
RB: (Laughs). Alright. Writing came to you as an avocation, hobby, and obsession–
EP: It came to me as an occupation. I was making my living as computer programmer, so writing was in those days confined to letters. But my letters were rather long.
RB: Do you still write letters?
EP: I do still.
RB: Hand write?
EP: No, but a typewriter. I write my stories on a typewriter too.
RB: It seems there is a renaissance of interest in typewriters
EP: Yes, somebody told me that.
RB: Well, at least if you pay attention to The New York Times. I have a few — one is a [portable] Hermes 3000, which reportedly was the typewriter of choice for journalists.
EP: I used to use a Hermes. I don’t remember what model it was. It was pretty old.
RB: For some reason, the 3200 comes up in a few stories.
EP: It was a very good typewriter. I used it for years.
RB: Did you study writing anywhere?
EP: I took a course in college and a course or two in my 30s. I did not get an MFA — I took a total of three courses.
RB: In the course of your writing career I read that you had written over 250 stories.
EP: I have written 250 short pieces, not all fiction.
RB: Is there a group of people you talk with about writing?
EP: I have particular friend and colleague whom I meet with every month who is also a writer and we exchange manuscripts. That’s been going on for 25 years.
RB: Any fights?
EP: We have had and we are ruthless with each other. I also have a non-fiction group of four and we meet once a month too.
RB: Which writers do you like to read?
EP: Well, I like best to read Dickens and I read him over and over again. I have been doing that for a long time. So I have probably read each book five or seven times.
RB: Rereading is a great thing. I feel compelled to keep digging in to the newly published. Although I reread 100 Years of Solitude three or four times. The last time I didn’t feel I got anything new and it made me wonder about past judgments about the book.
EP: Well, in Dickens, each time I find something, some turn of phrase, a manipulation of plot or a character I hadn’t appreciated. I read them in order to live in them. My purpose is not to find new things. My purpose is to sink into them.
EP: That was a riff on Magwitch in Great Expectations. I don’t think Dickens appears.
EP: There is a story by Evelyn Waugh, a novel I can’t remember which one it is. The end of it is a about young people and explorers and takes place in Africa — Black Mischief? The hero alone is captured by a crazy, fanatic ex-preacher who lives alone. And is held captive in order that the young man can read over and over and over the novels of Dickens until the old man dies. It’s supposed to be a tragic ending. To me it sounded like a wonderful life.
RB: Is that the extent of your reading, you just read Dickens? (Both laugh).
EP: I thought you asked who I read most or my favorite — at any rate.
RB: You gave me the impression that you aren’t required to read any particular writer.
EP: Right. I don’t feel I have to read anybody. At this point I feel like I’ve probably read enough. Not enough to educate myself — if I stopped reading, which would be a horror, I would probably not be a different person. People are made by the books they read and I think I am finished. That is to say, my making is finished.
RB: Do you think the task of literature is to instruct and entertain?
EP: Exactly. How did you know?
EP: I would put entertain first.
RB: Richard Russo introduced the volume of Best American Stories he guest edited with an amusing anecdote about Isaac Bashevis Singer visiting the campus where Russo was teaching and answering a graduate student’s inquiry with the “task of literature is to instruct and entertain.” Apparently the gathering wanted a more elaborate answer. I think that view is actually taken from Horace.
EP: Oh really?
RB: Is writing short fiction important?
EP: Because literature is important. The project is important.
RB: Do you have any sense that it’s being drowned out?
EP: It is being attacked so to speak. Drowned out isn’t the word I would use. It’s being narrowed by all sorts of things. But it probably always was. We notice the Internet, television, and all these electronic things, but 100 years ago it was affected by farm work. Only the very rich could read.
RB: That was probably the case for most of history — that only a small fraction could benefit from reading and writing.
EP: I don’t know that the percentage is any different now.
RB: The percentage may not be the different but the cause may be and thus the hold it has on our civilization may be different — more tenuous. I work with people who don’t read — 35 year olds who play video games.
EP: Well some time ago they might have been plowing the fields.
RB: There is this meme of the educated working class guy who finishes his shift on the assembly line and goes home and picks up William Faulkner. In fact, that is the story of Southern writers like Larry Brown and William Gay. I don’t think that obtains any more — especially because I don’t think one can be poor with dignity in the 21st century.
EP: People do come home and read no matter what their occupation is.
RB: Working class people have to work hard — frequently taking on second jobs
EP: Why don’t they have that luxury in their off hours?
RB: Besides fatigue, there aren’t a lot of cultural prompts.
EP: Where did people get it before?
RB: This belabors the obvious, but this a world that is far different than what we were raised in.
EP: My husband plays early music — he plays the viola de gamba as an amateur. The early music crowd is eccentric and a world unto itself. And passionate and they don’t write early music — it’s already been written, but they play it and adapt it. It is their overwhelming hobby. I think that’s what reading may become. A small group of people who love it and don’t care if they are thought of as crazy.
RB: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 has seemed prescient to me.
EP: It is. It is.
RB: People who collect guns or Aunt Jemima cookie jars are passionate also. Today it would seem passion — people who like reading and literature passionately began to champion the independent bookstore. That’s okay. I mean, who likes cookie cutter retailers? On the other hand, booksellers were beatified as if they weren’t merchants and capitalists. C’mon! Maybe a few were/are heroic — Truman Metzel of the late Great Expectations in Evanston Ill., or Sylvia Beach in Paris, Vincent McCaffrey in Boston.
EP: And now they have readings. Those of us who want to sell books are delighted.
RB: I understand. Do you go to the annual BEA?
EP: Tell me what it stands for?
RB: It’s a big booksellers trade show.
EP: In Frankfurt?
RB: That’s the Frankfurt Book Fair. This is the big American convocation of the book industry.
EP: Obviously, I don’t go to it since I don’t know what it is.
RB: So, do you go to book related events?
EP: I go to literary events — mostly at colleges. I go to bookstores. I go to festivals. I go where I am asked. If the BEA invited me, I would go.
RB: That does speak to the assumption that writers should help their publishers promote and sell their books.
EP: Yes, right. I do it for my publisher.
RB: Your publisher is blessed to be located in a civilized place like North Carolina (laughs). Wilmington? Chapel Hill?
EP: Wilmington. Do you know him?
RB: Ben? No.
EP: I thought he introduced us.
RB: Oh yeah, by email.
EP: He knows you, knows of you.
RB: I don’t remember the chain of events that brought us together — it must be because you are an overnight sensation (laughs). I must have read about you in Variety.
EP: No you didn’t. I am an overnight sensation of a sort. I have been writing for 40 years and this is my fourth book. And I always had a small following. And I never expected to have any bigger following. I would go to my grave with a small collection, happy. So this somehow happened.
RB: You knew about Ann Patchett’s intro to [Binocular Vision]? [She writes:“My only challenge was to keep from interrupting myself as I read. So often I wanted to stop and say to the audience, ‘Did you hear that? Do you understand how good this is?’”]
EP: That certainly helped.
RB: And there was a review in the LA Times that took the same tone. As did Roxana Robinson. I am happy for you, but that’s a bit of journalistic gimmickry. There are many artists that one can say that about.
EP: Absolutely. I had the luck to be plucked. It was luck. There are writers absolutely as good as I am or better who write their books and don’t get noticed.
RB: I am disturbed by that — I am reluctantly drawn into thinking about the business part of book publishing. Success frequently is serendipitous. I am certain you know the stories of writers who have submitted their books to many publishers and were rejected.
EP: Absolutely. Or 30 rejection letters for a story.
RB: Tibor Fischer’s story is particularly amazing. Of the almost 50 publishers in Britain he was rejected by all except the last one he approached. How do these decisions get made?
EP: By human beings. By fallible human beings.
RB: It would be okay if there were some humility attached to the gate keeping of publishing. Don’t you think?
EP: Yes. And the prize givers ought to be more humble and certainly the writers. In general the writers are — they know how lucky they are.
RB: You start out with a sense that there is a civilizing effect of thinking and writing and telling stories. It made life somehow better. And looking around today, it may be true but the contemplative life seems to be losing the battle.
EP: It improves the individual life, I think. People who read, people who write–
RB: Wouldn’t it be nice if they were to be salvation for all of us? (Laughs).
EP: I would, but I am not a proselytizer.
RB: All right, I scratch that line of thought. I have three favorite stories in Binocular Vision. “The Ministry of Restraint,” in part because I didn’t know what was going to happen — how well do you remember your stories — pretty well?
EP: I think so.
RB: A guy takes a trip to some backwater town, and takes a train back to the capitol and meets a woman. The train is blocked at a tunnel and the passengers have to get off and return to the starting point — as man and the woman walk side by side, their hands come close to touching but do not. And then over the years they meet. In final pages, you learn explicitly that they were lovers once. I was charmed by their initial close proximity which was brought to some fruition much later.
EP: I’m glad you liked it.
RB: And then the heart wrenching tale of a damaged infant. Why did you name her Tess?
EP: I don’t remember. I don’t remember. It has a slightly angelic appeal to me.
RB: Any connection to Thomas Hardy?
EP: No. She wasn’t named after Tess of the D’Ubervilles.
RB: How many Tesses do you know?
EP: Probably none.
RB: It’s an unusual name
EP: Yes, it’s taken from the nickname for Theresa.
RB: Was it a hard story to write?
EP: Yes. I wrote it in pieces. And, of course, it’s told in pieces. And I didn’t write it in the order of its final form.
RB: You chose to have a number of people tell the story.
EP: Only one person speaks in her own voice — that’s the mother. There are probably a half of dozen people who see the child — each of them has a thought that you know about. But it’s the mother who speaks in the first person.
RB: And it was hard to write because?
EP: It dealt with such sad things.
RB: Do you have enough time to emotionally identify with the characters?
EP: Yes, I think I do. I have enough intensity to get involved.
RB: I wonder about the aftermath of writing a novel, which requires a writer to inhabit lives for a period of time. How long does it take to write a story — a year?
EP: No, no. A few months. I suppose in a hardhearted way I forget the sadness of the story I have written. Life goes on and I write the next story.
RB: Are you tempted to write what seems to be a current trend–
EP: Linked stories? Well I have several stories that take place in the same place — in soup kitchen. The stories about the woman who works for the joint distribution committee — there are four about her. It’s not a temptation so much as I am not through with that character, so I want to write another story about them.
RB: Is there one thing that moves you in taking up or developing a story — a name, an image, feeling, a memory?
EP: All of those things. It’s not one — something I dream–
RB: When you begin, do you know what is going to happen?
EP: When I start out, it’s a lot of improvising and I write many pages of improvisation and then I begin to see what story I want to write. I start all over again with the knowledge that I have gotten from the improvisation.
RB: Do you think the piece is finished when the story is written?
EP: Well, I take them to my friend, whom I meet every month, who is ruthless with me and I with her.
RB: Does she use any instruments in her ruthlessness (laughs)?
EP: No, no. It’s all an abuse of the mind. And she either says, “This is almost done” or “Go back.” And I do.
RB: One writer told me that she submits the draft — her editor sends a back a few notes, which enrage her. She writes back to her editor expressing her anger. The editor doesn’t respond. And a few weeks later, the writer decides the editor was right (laughs).
EP: She had to get over her rage and humiliation first.
RB: Really! Where was I?
EP: You were going to tell me the third story you liked.
RB: Right. It was the one entitled “Chance.” It had a Torah study group card game. I enjoyed the Hassidic slant, but I really like that it went somewhere I didn’t see coming. I lost track of why the card game devolved to the temple and presentation ceremony.
EP: It begins with the Torah being delivered, and so I had hoped that the Torah would always be somewhere in the back of the reader’s mind.
RB: Yes, it’s mentioned in the middle of the story. I was distracted by the card game interlude.
EP: Well, the title of the story is “Chance.” That’s what poker is about–
RB: And what the Torah is about (laughs)?
EP: No, that’s what the destruction of Jewry was about. That is to say it was chance that some Jews lived and some died.
RB: The story’s last two lines were quite powerful. Story collections are a delight because despite what is usually a deliberate sequence you can go through and begin with titles that you find appealing. I would never skip around in a novel.
EP: My daughter used to read novels that way. A piece here and a piece there. And I read somewhere that Nabokov wrote his novels that way on 5×8 cards. There is a writer who found or could have found his ideal reader.
RB: Movies are made that way — out of narrative sequence.
EP: When I was a girl, I‘d go to a double feature in the middle and go around for the part I missed. They don’t let you do that now. I tried and was told that the director did mean for you to see it that way.
RB: In the last few years, I have relaxed my personal rule about finishing books that I begin–
EP: Many of my friends have said that [same] thing to me: “Now, if I don’t like it out it goes.”
RB: It means I have shifted more responsibility to the writer. It’s always an issue, the immediacy of our reaction — you may hate a book one day and find it quite readable the next.
EP: Yes. And the things we believe today, we can expect not to believe tomorrow.
RB: (Laughs) If we can remember them.
RB: Do you go back to your work?
EP: Well, I do when I make a collection. Because it’s a chance to improve them. So I go back — when a story is accepted by a magazine, it’s an opportunity to correct things.
RB: You see that as a correction?
EP: Improve? If it then goes into an anthology like Best American, I take an opportunity to correct or revise there — but not much. Not wholesale revision. And then, for a collection of my own, I certainly have an opportunity to change or review.
RB: Where does that impulse come from? At one point you felt the story was finished. Not perfect but done.
EP: I thought it was done to the best of my ability at the time.
RB: And then you got better since you wrote it? (Laughs).
EP: I don’t know that I got better — I got different. I was in an event in which three short stories were read by three actresses which was a lot of fun. I was watching one writer listening to her own story — she said later all she could hear were the infelicities. So I am sure if that story gets re-collected she’ll change some things.
RB: There is also the matter that the creator has expectations of the audience to grasp their creation in a certain way.
EP: No, I don’t feel that way. I agree with the statement, “Trust the tale, not the teller.” My attitude about a story I have written may well be different from a reader’s. And I don’t mind that.
RB: Would you say it should be different?
EP: No, I don’t say that. It can be appreciated in many ways. Or not appreciated.
RB: This recent collection was a collection of stories that already existed?
EP: Thirteen new stories that had not been in a book. They had previously been published in magazines. There were 16 stories that had never been collected.
RB: They had all been previously published somewhere?
EP: Except for one. I can’t remember which one.
RB: Some writers say they will write stories specifically for a book.
EP: No, I don’t do that. I write hoping that a magazine will take it. And I don’t think about a collection until I have quite a few stories.
RB: Why are writers like Alice Munro, William Trevor, and yourself admired in a way that seems different than many writers?
EP: Thank you very much for putting me in that threesome. I was so dazzled by that that I didn’t hear the rest of the question.
RB: (Laughs) I took your breath away. Does it strike you that there’s a craftsmanship assigned to the writers I mentioned. That short fiction writers are looked as artisans?
EP: Yes, we have to have our end not only in mind, but pointed towards, within the story. Like the ones you mentioned.
RB: You seem to travel a lot.
EP: I’m traveling now because–
RB: You’re an overnight sensation?
EP: Did you ever hear Danny Kaye’s comment when he became a success and somebody said he was an overnight sensation? He responded, “Yes, after 20 years in the Borscht Belt.” I’m not an overnight sensation, but at the moment I’m in demand. It won’t last forever, so I am responding to it.
RB: How do you know? Mostly there is a six-week window of attention for books and then goodbye. Your “15 minutes” has lasted since the Spring.
EP: It’s been three months.
RB: That’s a long time.
EP: Yes, yes. It received these very good reviews. But other books are coming along with good reviews.
RB: What’s come out that has really excited reviewers?
EP: The Tiger Wife. I’m trying to think of fiction — I am sure there are others.
RB: I think not. Except for David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.
EP: What about David Mitchell’s book?
RB: That was a while ago — it just came out in paper.
EP: I bought it in hardcover.
RB: Did you like it?
EP: I haven’t read it.
RB: (Chuckles) You bought the book and haven’t read it.
EP: I have a lot of books I haven’t read.
RB: What are you reading now?
EP: The Worst Journey in the World, which is about Scott’s last expedition. It’s a nice alternative to fiction.
RB: Do you know Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal? It’s about an Arctic expedition.
EP: I’ll bet its good — I like her short stories. Anthony Doerr got very good reviews.
RB: Sure, but within the usual window of attention. And not a widespread choice. So what’s next? Any polar expeditions?
EP: No, no. I have a grandchild I walk every day. I have lots of friends whom I meet for coffee. Love to go to the movies.
RB: What was the last movie you saw you liked?
EP: I liked The King’s Speech. I usually like movies when I see them. There are very few movies I don’t like.
RB: Meaning you choose carefully?
EP: No, I have a general love of movies. I love the experience.
RB: Do you watch TV?
EP: (Shakes her head).
EP: I don’t have one.
RB: Wow. Isn’t there a whole bunch of culture you are missing?
EP: I am. Yes there is. I do lead a somewhat insulated life without television.
RB: Well, you have missed one of the great TV series — The Wire.
EP: Oh yeah? What’s that about?
RB: Big city life in Baltimore — drugs, unions, corruption, public schools, politics, media. There were five seasons and every season had a different focus. It was a Tolstoyan tale.
EP: I am sure I am missing things that are good. I have a feeling that I’d become addicted if I started watching. And I also have a very good radio.
RB: What do you listen to?
EP: Music mostly. I listen to interesting interviews
RB: What’s it like to be on book tour? Especially when a small amount of people show up for an event — has that happened to you?
EP: It certainly has. This [current] book seems to get a crowd. I read for my other three books a lot and seven people would be there. You do as well as you can for those seven people. I once was on a lineup that included David Sedaris and I was the first reader and he was the second. I had the experience of standing before 500 people reading my story — all of 499 had come for him. It was fun.
RB: That’s show business.
EP: Thank you.
I began The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson, on a Sunday afternoon in May flying home from a friend’s wedding and finished it around 2 am that night holed up in my “office,” a 6×8 foot room covered in music equipment, gym clothes, and a decent amount of garbage. My desire to finish Ronson’s gripping book without waking my cat and girlfriend outweighed the putrid stench of my terrible fetid lair. I felt like a psychopath! But I’m not one — I have a sense of humor and experience empathy. Ding ding ding.
In the book, Ronson runs through a 20-item checklist used to diagnose psychopathy, in the process interviewing a mass-murderer, mental patients, daytime talk-show producers, a corporate downsizer, and more. Dark stuff, certainly, but Ronson is able to find hilarity in the truly morbid. When I finished it, I passed it on to my mom and she loved it!
War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, by Chris Hedges, tells of the author’s experiences covering wars for The New York Times. I’m fascinated by how, in an era where more and more things are documented online, much of what actually goes down during war remains hidden from public view. This slim volume goes a good way into explaining the mindsets of those who have lived through war and the journalists who regularly cover it.
I also really enjoyed The Tiger’s Wife, by Téa Obreht. It got me thinking a lot about the nature of family generally, and my departed grandfathers specifically, which I don’t do often enough. I can’t wait to read what she writes next.
In terms of purely enjoyable language, I need to recommend The Angel Esmerelda, by Don DeLillo. That man, to this day, knows how to write a spectacular sentence.
The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles
The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews
Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Award season is hitting its stride, and this year’s National Book Award finalists have been announced. For the second year in a row, the fiction finalists number four women versus one male author, and many of the “bigger” literary releases of the year are nowhere to be found. Also for the second year in a row, a New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer is recognized. By virtue of that, Téa Obreht may be the most well-known name of the bunch (our review). A pair of independent or university presses are represented among the fiction finalists, including Bellevue Literary Press, which made its name when Paul Harding’s Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer.
In nonfiction, we have the first graphic book in to be recognized in this category.
Update: There was a late addition to the YA finalists list: Chime by Franny Billingsley
Update 2: Due to a mixup by and subsequent pressure from the Foundation, Lauren Myracle has withdrawn Shine from consideration.
Here’s a list of the finalists in all four categories with bonus links and excerpts where available:
The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak (excerpt)
The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht (excerpt)
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (excerpt)
Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (excerpt)
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (excerpt)
The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker (excerpt)
Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel (excerpt)
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt (excerpt)
Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable (our review)
Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss (excerpt)
Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney
The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa
Double Shadow by Carl Phillips
Tonight No Poetry Will Serve: Poems: 2007-2010 by Adrienne Rich (excerpt)
Devotions by Bruce Smith
Young People’s Literature:
My Name is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai (excerpt)
Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin (excerpt)
Shine by Lauren Myracle
Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt (excerpt)